Thurs Mar 5th @ 7pm
“The Seagull” (1896), “Uncle Vanya” (1899), “The Three Sisters” ((1901) and “The Cherry Orchard” (1904) are the best-known plays by Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright. The latter two are generally considered his masterpieces and it was a production in 1898 by the famed Moscow Arts Theatre of “The Seagull” which established him in the front rank of dramatists. Chekhov is today acknowledged as one of the world’s great playwrights, and his four major plays are, in good productions, among the great joys of theatre. It’ impossible in this short piece to convey what I feel is the magic there can be in a great production of a Chekhov play; like two other masters of subtle effects, Jane Austen and Mozart, Chekhov can be elusive but, done ‘right’, they can be life-changing.“The Cherry Orchard” premiered in January 1904 and the author died in July of the same year. Chekhov was born in Southern Russia in 1860, became a Doctor. By 1890 he had written some masterly short stories which brought him fame, but until 1895 his only theatrical successes were monologues and farces. His first full-length play, “Ivanov” (which I saw a few years ago at The Dublin Theatre Festival), is an interesting experiment but doesn’t nearly approach the theatrical mastery its author later achieved. George Bernard Shaw, among many others, was an ardent admirer of Chekhov’s plays and some of Brian Friel’s plays are in the Chekhovian tradition. Not much happens in a Chekhov play – and yet everything happens. Lives are changed irrevocably in the course of seemingly humdrum days. He “holds the mirror up to (human) nature”, as Shakespeare prescribed. It has been said that in Chekhov “characters fulfill their destinies while appearing to do little more than complain about the weather and fish; they reflect on their failures, play cards, suffer and rejoice in the unpredictable rhythms of life”. In “The Seagull”, for instance, there is a chain of unrequited passion in which most of the characters are in love with somebody who is in love with somebody else”. How tragic, and yet Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies! In “The Three Sisters”, the young women live in a small provincial town while they dream of escaping to the delights of life in Moscow – the ‘plot’ of the play merely consists of the slow death of those dreams. In this play and in “The Cherry Orchard’’ there’s a nostalgia for the transitory beautiful things of life along with a longed-for hope of happiness in the future. Sonya’s haunting words in “Uncle Vanya” put it so well:- “We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya. We shall live on through a great, great line of days, of long evenings; we shall patiently endure the trials that fate brings us … and when our time comes we shall die submissively, and they’re beyond the grave we shall say we have suffered, that we have wept, that our lives were bitter, and God will take pity on us, and you and I, dear Uncle, shall see a life that is luminous, beautiful, splendid. … In your life you have not known any joy, but wait, wait. … We shall have rest”. What a marvelous summary of the stoical struggles that so many led, especially in the dying days of Czarist Russia, shortly before Lenin et al swept it all away. The plot of “The Cherry Orchard” is as follows:- The spendthrift Madam Ranavskaya returns from Paris to her heavily mortgaged country estate. The estate will have to be sold to pay off unpaid interest. A wealthy businessman, Lopakhin, a son of a serf on the estate, advises her to sell the cherry orchard in plots for holiday homes. The family consider ways of avoiding a sale while at the same time preparing for a ball. … Chekhov is exploring the decay of an old world of aristocracy and privilege – the Russian Revolution was soon to engulf the Ranevskyas of their day. And the playwright’s beautiful dialogue, where very little happens, lets us see into the souls of his characters like few others can do. Madam Ranavskaya’s daughter, Anya, tells her broken-hearted mother: “We shall plant a new orchard, fairer than this: you shall see it, you shall realize, and joy, profound, calm joy, shall descend upon your soul, like the sun at the evening hour, and you shall smile, mother.” But at the end, there is no consolation, as her mother laments: “Oh my lovely, my sweet, beautiful orchard! … My life, my youth, my happiness, good-bye! Good-bye.”
Druid Theatre’s cinema live production is a very welcome first for Irish Theatre and I hope it’s the first of many. Apart from a slight reservation I have about adaptations or ‘versions’ of the great classics – Chekhov, Shakespeare or Arthur Miller are good enough for me! – I accept that Tom Murphy is a great playwright and his ‘take’ on such a masterpiece should be enjoyable. The wonderful Aaron Monaghan, Derbhla Crotty, Garret Lombard, Rory Nolan, John Olohan and Marty Rea are actors I’ve seen giving superb performances on Irish stages fro a number of years. For me, and for many playgoers, Chekhov holds a hallowed, unique place in the history of drama. I long for the day when a Chekhov will gain first place at the All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone – and we have Directors who are capable of mining his plays’ richness!