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The cherries on Chekhov’s birthday cake

The Times 13th January 2010, Heather Neill

Towards the end of his life Anton Chekhov predicted to his friend the writer Ivan Bunin that his work would be read only by the public for seven more years. Why seven? Bunin asked him. “Well, maybe seven and a half,” came the reply - “which isn’t bad. I’ve only got six years to live.” it was a modest prophecy, and, it turned out, inaccurate on both counts. He died less than six years later (in 1904) but his star, 150 years after his birth, shows no sign of dimming.

In Britain he is not just admired but adored. “The British theatre has colonised Chekhov as the Russians have Shakespeare,” says the director Richard Eyre. “Like Shakespeare he sets the passion, torment and optimism of youth against life’s melancholy.” The writer Lynne Truss believes he appeals here because “the English are very evasive about seriousness; they like to be caught in the tension between sympathy and farce”. Chekhov is, of course, famous for mixing laughter and tears, or as the actor Penelope Wilton puts it: “He sees the ridiculousness of the human state. He breaks your heart and makes you laugh at the same time.”

These three are among a host of literary and theatrical stars brought together at Hampstead Theatre next week to celebrate the playwright’s 150th anniversary. The actor Michael Pennington has put together eight mouth-watering events with the help of the playwright’s biographer Rosamund Bartlett, who has contributed new versions of some of Chekhov’s 600 stories.

Eyre will direct leading actors (including Harriet Walter, Lisa Dillon and Pennington himself) in scenes from the great plays (The Cherry Orchard, he says “offers a model to any writer attempting to write about private lives and public ideas that is humane, spare, poetic, polemical, and unsentimental”). Truss’s talk about Chekhov’s women will be illustrated by two stories read by Rosamund Pike, In the Cart and The Darling. Penelope Wilton will read The Lady with the Little Dog, to be discussed by David Hare, who chose it to feature in his recent film The Reader. Pennington will perform his one-man show in which he “becomes” the writer. The novelist William Boyd tackles Chekhov’s doctors, his medical tales, with the help of Eileen Atkins, and the writer William Fiennes and Simon Russell Beale present Verotchka, a story of unrequited love.

But the event on Monday evening includes a rare thing indeed: a Chekhov world premiere. Michael Frayn, playwright and Chekhov translator, will present Chekhov’s Vaudevilles. He has selected The Harmfulness of Tobacco, to be performed by David Horovitch, a two-hander,Drama, featuring Horovitch and Miriam Margolyes, and Plots, which Frayn has adapted from a short story. This will be performed professionally for the first time by Steve McNeil as an inept physician.

But there is another reason for this Chekhovfest and related programmes on Radio 4: the White Dacha, the playwright’s last home in Yalta, where he lived from 1899 to his death in 1904, is in a parlous state, and the money raised by Hampstead theatre will go towards its restoration. Pennington is president of the campaign to save the house, and its cherry trees. The Cherry Orchard was written there, along with Three Sisters and the stories The Bishop and The Lady with the Little Dog, whose heroine walks along the seafront seen from the window. And it is from this house that Chekhov, suffering from tuberculosis and hoping to benefit from the Crimean climate, wrote touching letters to his actress wife, Olga Knipper. Like the three sisters, he longed for Moscow.

Pennington says that Chekhov had “every American convenience”, including the first telephone in Yalta, but life thee was demanding. “He hated the cult of celebrity and admirers would pursue him like a pod of whales following a ship. He was miserable, missing his friends, but out of the misery came masterpieces.”

Chekhov’s sister Masha maintained the house as he had left it until she died in 1957. “She kept the flame alive, surviving the German occupation and refusing to allow a Nazi officer to sleep in Chekhov’s bedroom. Then, in Soviet days, such sites were state-funded,” Pennington says. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, responsibility for the property was disputed: Crimea is in Ukraine, but Chekhov was Russian (with some Ukrainian blood). Now funds are simply insufficient. “I know of no writer’s house that more tenderly reflects the character of its owner,” Pennington says.

He anticipates a fittingly Chekhovian celebration: “apprehensive about the future, but comic and full of hope.”

Jubilee for Anton Chekhov, Hampstead Theatre, Jan 18-23. On radio: a documentary about Chekhov’s house, Jan 19, 11.30am, and About Love, five stories by Chekhov, read by Michael Pennington, Jan 25-29, 10.45 am (Both Radio 4)

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