On Anton and onanism

30th May 2013

To Richmond Theatre for Headlong’s smart and stimulating adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (until Saturday, then Bath and Derby). As directed by Blanche McIntyre, a fine cast including Abigail Cruttenden, Alexander Cobb and Pearl Chanda deliver John Donnelly’s remodelled text with passion and panache. This is a Seagull that, in part by developing a dialogue with Hamlet, foregrounds the play’s strong sense of the stage and of story-telling. (There’s a very good set of resources from Headlong’s website here.) It is the second modern staging of the play that I have seen in the past year and the fifth exceptionally fine Chekhov production. Which has prompted me to muse on the playwright, on television, on language and on onanism.

Perhaps we should deal with the onanism first. Certainly this Seagull is the first production of Chekhov that I have seen to feature a lengthy sequence of on-stage masturbation (by Boris, cradled and encouraged by Irina). From which observation you might intuit that the Headlong production does not work with a ‘literal’ translation. Rather, writer John Donnelly has brought into being a version that re-orders scenes and adds elements as well as finding modern expressions with which to render the Russian original.

Despite textual changes that are at times substantial I am happy to accept that this is Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and that this this is the same play that I saw at Southwark Playhouse in November. Anya Reiss’ version also effectively updated the text, as Mark Lawson discussed in a Guardian piece, Translating The Seagull: how far can you push Chekhov? Similarly bold was Benedict Andrews’ brilliant contemporary re-imagining of Three Sisters last autumn at the Young Vic (which Andrews also directed).

In a richly interesting post-play discussion on Wednesday at Richmond Cynthia Marsh, who is Emeritus Professor of Russian Drama and Literature at the University of Nottingham, made the excellent point (which I paraphrase) that we are lucky that Chekhov wrote in Russian. We almost always watch him in translation, unlike Shakespeare, and this allows him to be constantly re-invented for us through language. Unless we make a conscious decision to use a ‘historical’ translation, Chekhov can be always already modern – and as a consequence he more than Shakespeare is available to us for contemporary re-imaginings.

Because the language is so directly present for us, the argument continues, the works of Shakespeare are not on offer in the same way. And if you try to mess with the words, words, words, as did the 2005 BBC series Shakespeare Re-told or – worse – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2010 Such Tweet Sorrow, then the results can come across as simply trite. I find this suggestion convincing, and it helps make sense of quite why Chekhov can feel forever young. That said, with the language intact Shakespeare can also most certainly be re-told in startlingly modern terms – witness last year’s dazzlingly original RSC King John directed by Maria Aberg.

Completing my quintet of cherishable Chekhovs in the past twelvemonth were two Uncle Vanyas. One was by the Russian Theatre Vakhtangov, given in the original language (and without surtitles), which turned the play into a work of spell-binding physical theatre (I wrote about the production here). And then there was Lucy Bailey’s breath-takingly intimate Uncle Vanya with Iain Glen at The Print Room. For this the audience sat around the edges of a room, designed by William Dudley, in which the desperation of the characters was acted out for us in dismaying and exilarating detail.

The text for that Vanya was a translation by Mike Poulton, which was the fourth version he had written and had performed. In an Introduction to the published text he wrote

It’s a measure of the greatness of this play that while… translations lose their power, the original never does. It grows more moving, more gripping, and funnier on each reading. The more one works closely with it, the more secrets it reveals.

Which I take to be a valuable counter-point to the impetuses behind the versions of The Seagull by John Donnelly and Anya Reiss. How exciting it is that all of these productions can be mounted for us to experience and explore.

As I have mentioned before, I had great hopes that we might make a television version of Lucy Bailey’s Uncle Vanya, and we developed the project extensively last year only to see it fail at BBC Four’s final hurdle. But perhaps it is worth reflecting again on how little Chekhov television has offered us in recent years. For in contrast with the profusion of bold and beautiful versions of his work on the stage, television’s presentation has been vanishingly slight. (We could of course make the same argument about many other dramatists, including perhaps most notably Ibsen, but also Shaw, Strindberg and many others.)

Sky Arts presented Chekhov’s one-act sketches in 2010 (see here for my blog post), but the most recent production of a full-length Chekhov drama was in 2004. During its early and short-lived experiment with in-theatre recordings, BBC Four transmitted a dreadful taping of Michael Blakemore’s exquisite production of Three Sisters with Kristin Scott Thomas. The most recent television adaptation of The Seagull was back in 1978 (thirty-five years ago), which was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and prior to the 2004 travesty, the most last Three Sisters was Thames Television’s studio version of Trevor Nunn’s production in 1981.

By and large, television in its encounters with the Russian has followed the dominant English style of wistful and melancholic naturalism. Only The Cherry Orchard has been treated with imaginative rigour, in Richard Eyre’s 1981 production with Judi Dench and Bill Paterson of a text prepared by Trevor Griffiths. But the contemporary approaches to the writer represented in different ways by Headlong and Southwark Playhouse have never got near the screen. No onanism, please, we’re the BBC.

Yet I wish, wish, wish there was a way to interpret creatively and disseminate widely screen versions of Headlong’s engagements with the classics, the best from the Southwark Playhouse and the glories of the Vakhtangov, not to mention the revelatory work represented by Lucy Bailey’s Uncle Vanya. Television at present shows no indications whatsoever of interest, so are there other ways of working which do not rely on breaching the barriers of broadcasting?

Clearly NTLive has made a great success of taking stage plays to cinemas, and as my post earlier this week indicated, the RSC intends to extend this work with its productions of Shakespeare. But are there another models for production and for distribution, which are perhaps not as dependent on the large audiences who may be attracted by the gold-standard brands of the National and the RSC? There are available audiences for sure, and as the Chekhovs I have described indicate there is most definitely work on stage of the very highest creative achievement. So just how do we bring the two together?


  1. Anna says:

    If you can get to to the Arcola over the next 2 weeks, may I recommend Sons Without Fathers, based on Platonov, and with a cast including Mark Jax and Susie Trayling (from King John), Jack Laskey, Marianne Oldham and Simon Scardifield. I don’t know the original, though now college is out for the Summer I’ll be tracking it down, but this is cut down from the original 6 hours and cuts out some of the subplots. It’s a modern setting, though not experimental, and although Laskey in particular stops it from falling into farce, it’s hilarious – but poignant as you’d expect. I saw it in Coventry, so it’s probably even better now it’s bedded in.

    I won’t be seeing Headlong till Derby, but I agree that the recent flush of modern Chekhovs is very welcome. I’d heard that comment about Chekhov in translation before, and not being a Russian speaker I can’t really comment. I do sometimes feel sorry for people who only know Shakespeare in translation because they miss so much poetry (and even Shakespeare nerds like me in the 21st Century miss so much of the subtlety of his layers of meaning) but I do find that I can watch Shakespeare in “foreign” without having to resort to surtitles, yet when I’ve seen Chekhov in Russian – even the big four that I know well – I’ve had to rely on surtitles partly because I don’t have the words and rhythms in my head, and partly because his ratio of talk to action is, I think, skewed far more in the direction of talk than Shakespeare.

    Why, oh why, oh why? Sky Arts don’t seem to have a big budget although they attract actors in their short plays series who I imagine charge a decent amount. Can’t they pay for theatre adaptations? And I speak with the vested interest of one who hasn’t been down to London Town often enough recently. The other model, and I don’t claim to be a business person, is Digital Theatre. Do they make a profit?

    I don’t know, John. BBC4 seems the natural home of all good programming, but they also seem to be bullied by a government which, despite Gove, would rather pretend to be football fans than admit to a theatre-going habit. Even a minority BBC channel seems to need to turn a profit as art becomes commodity. Reith must be rolling in his grave. You and I know that theatre is one of the most exciting places to be, but something, who knows what, needs to happen to make theatre cool, and have people who can’t get to see particular productions clamouring for a video representation.

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