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From Russia With Love

The Times, 25th July 2003, Benedict Nightingale

Peter Stein is one of Europe’s two greatest directors, with Peter Brook. Unlike Brook, who never loses his temper, Stein is renowned for a ferocious perfectionism. But when I met him in Edinburgh after a day he’d spent rehearsing Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ for the festival, his mood was far from matching his forbidding black clothes. “I am astonished at myself,” he said. “I’m known for hypercriticism and aggressiveness and bitterness. And if someone is hindering my work I get very, very angry. But …”

But? Well, this is the first time the German auteur has directed British-language actors, and he describes the venture as “absolutely satisfying” and even “absolutely stunning”. “I have never had such an experience in 35 years. This cast is ready to try anything. I tell you, I have never spoken about any cast as positively as I’m speaking about this cast. Never, never.”

Since the 65-year-old Stein is especially famous for his Chekhov productions, those remarks would probably leave his British-Irish cast equally astonished. Fiona Shaw, who plays the actress Arkadina, says that its high praise if Stein tells an actor he’s not too bad: “And if you’re bad he says, ‘this is very bad’. Flattery is his second name, I don’t think! But when I took the part I decided I wouldn’t react against him even if I found the experience crushing. And here I am, still vertical. He’s actually very patient.”

Indeed he seems to have won the cast’s regard and, yes, affection. Michael Pennington, who plays the doctor Dorn, contrasts him with the sort of English director who says: “Could you possibly try this, sweetheart?”. “Peter is very, very candid. He says ‘You must do this or it will be completely hopeless’. He’s right between the eyes. But you shouldn’t be hurt because his taste is very, very good and he’s open to suggestions.”

Pennington is the Chekhovian who has developed a one-man show about the dramatist and recently published a book about him, ‘Are You There Crocodile?’ (Oberon Books). And Shaw, a superb actress, is the only cast member who knew Stein before this ‘Seagull’. Indeed she has spent the last ten years urging him to direct in Britain, only for him to refuse, mainly because he felt his English wasn’t good enough. He had similarly resisted Brian McMaster, the director of the Edinburgh Festival, when he asked him to direct Chekhov. After seeing several revivals in England he suspected that our actors were too ‘Noel Coward’, too verbally smart, too lacking in feeling for plays that are “about what characters mean, not what they say”.

But McMaster’s pressure coincided with an invitation from a Russian company in Latvia wanting to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It also coincided with a growing need in Stein himself, who, introducing himself to his British cast, told them that his soul’s health depended on regularly staging Chekhov. But was ‘The Seagull’, which he’d never tackled, the answer? He reread the play, eventually learning its every word, and realised it wasn’t the inferior piece he’s feared. And the somewhat bizarre result is that this year he’s staging the play twice with two non-German casts: first in Edinburgh, then in Riga.

Shaw had mixed feelings when Stein asked her to play Arkadina after seeing her Medea in Paris this year. It would be a relief to take a role where there wasn’t the double exhaustion of being murderously baleful and having to dominate the stage throughout.

But she felt some of the neurotically vain Arkadina’s own shock when she realised that, at 44, she was to play a grown man’s mother. “I thought, oh God, already! But there comes a moment in your life when you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and go aaagh! Maggie Smith said to me, ‘All I’ve got ahead now are the harridans’, and I know what she means. But of course I agreed.”

Stein then arranged for both the British and Latvian companies to converge on the town of Chekhov, an hour south of Moscow. The idea was to give them a sense of the dramatist through experiencing the place where he owned an estate and would run up a flag to tell unwanted visitors that he was writing ‘The Seagull’. It was, however, an awkward meeting. Shaw remembers her opposite number sweeping in with her fine red hair and bronze shawl, and looking at her in dismay, as if to say ‘and you are Arkadina?’. Pennington had to calm his counterpart, who kept asking: ‘Are you too old to play Dorn? Am I too young? Has Dorn a problem with alcohol? Why does he not fight his rival Shamraev?’

But soon the British were drinking and having singalongs with the Russians in their hotel’s dour dining-room. They were also beginning to bond and become an ensemble. And that process continued when Stein invited the Edinburgh cast to his own estate near Rome.

It’s a vast and paradisal place where the director lives, with a medieval tower, fields which he farms, dacha-like outhouses for the actors, a lake and wild boars wandering beyond: “Sissinghurst meets Umbria,” according to Shaw. Stein and his guess relaxed in Chekhovian style, worked on the playwright’s letters and diaries, watched Russian movies and rehearsed in a nearby village. The director knew this was a risk, as proximity can cause friction, but rates it a success. After four enchanting, busy weeks the company felt, like Chekhov’s three sisters, that it was time for big-city reality, so off they went to Edinburgh. And when I met them there I discovered a fascinating paradox.

The British actors regard Stein, who comes from a German tradition of auteurs, as an unusually prescriptive director. Stein himself thinks he has never been less so. One of his key words if “proposition”. And his propositions can extend not only to carefully choreographing and orchestrating a scene, but to telling an actor to move a glass this way rather than that. Yet the cast have also found him a responsive listener, and he himself has been surprised by the British habit of making creative suggestions and testing fresh ideas.

Some of his past productions have been virtually 100 per cent Stein. In this ‘Seagull’, he says, 50 or 60 per cent of the propositions have come from the actors. And the delight seems mutual. “Peter is contradictory,” says Pennington. “The very moment you’re deciding he’s an autocrat he becomes a collaborator. He says, ‘Give me something and I will adjust it’, or ‘This is my proposition, but let’s try yours’. And he’s never asked me do anything that I’ve felt false. He has a wonderful sense of space and a musical ear for the subtleties of the line. He’s like a conductor.”

“He’s meticulous,” agrees Shaw. “And when he says, move that glass from left to the right, you ask, ‘What does this have to do with the world breaking apart in my soul?’ But he doesn’t just sit there saying, ‘Do this, do that’. For instance, I put my son Konstantin on my lap, and he said ‘I like what you do, so we go with that’. He gives you a framework. He paints the broad strokes and lets you colour it in deeper, deeper, deeper. The physical reality helps you find the emotional reality. If you move the glass correctly your inner soul is free to do the right things.”

Some foreign actors, especially the French (Stein says) have been offended by his punchy, deliberately provocative approach. But he’s found tolerance, humility and a total lack of self-indulgence in this British cast. “They let me be as I am. I want them to accept me as a total areshole, and they do.” In turn, they respect his workaholic determination to explore every detail, every nuance, every silence, and they know he’s as hard on himself as on them. Shaw says he’s sometimes to be heard raging at himself for his own stupidity: “He’s Napoleon and a child. You feel you’re munchkins in the Land of Peter, yet he’s humane, self-deprecating and so funny about himself.”

Consistently enough, Stein says that Edinburgh may find his ‘Seagull’ “lousy”. He calls himself a tourist in an alien culture, “a sad, sentimental, tragic German” in a country that expects hilarity on its stages. And, come the autumn, he’ll be doing it all again in Riga.

There, he expects to confront a Russian intensity of emotion that he’s sometimes found so unrelenting, so overwhelming, so embarrassing that he’s had to cover his face.

That’s one reason he’s unlikely to find restaging ‘The Seagull’ repetitive or boring. And not only he is interested in “transmitting totally different actor behaviour”. He knows that what he calls his prime creative aim, “getting to the centre of Chekhov and understanding it”, is an inexhaustible, impossible task.

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