Anyone who cares for Chekhov should make room for this Platonov in their diary, and, for that matter, for the whole Young Chekhov sequence, which individually and cumulatively offer a unique insight into this consummate analyst of the foibles of human nature.
For many years this was the Chekhov play that no one knew. Written when he was a young medical student, it survives as an unedited seven-hour long sprawl of material without a title, unearthed in Moscow the Soviets from a strongbox owned by Masha, the writer’s sister.
Modern dramatists have attempted various adaptations, notably Michael Frayn’s very free version, Wild Honey; and this latest one by David Hare is part of his fresh evaluation of the dramatist’s early work – the first three plays that culminate in The Seagull. Already a major success at Chichester, these three productions by Jonathan Kent are now running at the National, with the same cast in each. They are available to be seen either individually or all together in the epic journey of one day, so that the development of the dramatist’s art becomes immediately lucid and accessible in one huge arc.
This first play is a triumph for all concerned. Hare manages to find a shape and form for this ‘loose baggy monster’ of a play by balancing and reconciling its farcical momentum with its dark episodes of tragic loss and introspection.
He cannot entirely conceal some of the simplistic manoeuvres and awkward transitions that the young dramatist resorts to, but the adaptation provides a showcase for all the familiar Chekhovian characters and themes, which are already fascinatingly in place – the supercession of an decayed, feckless aristocratic order by a new and aggressive capitalist generation, the frustration and boredom of life in the countryside for the educated middle class particularly women, the grounded common sense and spontaneous humanity of the servants and peasants trapped in this social nexus, and especially the aspirations and yearnings of those, from all social ranks, who long for for a better life and their own version of freedom – the young widow, the lonely landowner, the poacher, the bored newly-wed, the devoted, neglected wife, the inadequate doctor, the grasping merchant and debt-collector, just to mention a few.
All the elements of the kaleidoscope are in place, though in broad-brush terms, without the subtlety of graded disappointment and thwarted promise that is delineated later on in this canon.
The main focus is on the title role, a local schoolteacher with Hamlet-like magnetism, who in all public ways is a failure, but through his charm and eloquence seduces women effortlessly and also wins over or fobs off most of the men. He is the genial fox in the chicken-coop of this community.
A huge amount of the success of the play therefore also revolves around the actor playing him, and a stand-out performance by James McCardle ensures that no opportunity is missed to deliver comic and tragic potential. It’s a bravura comic interpretation, but also shot through with a melancholy and self-disdain that fully humanises the character and avoids caricature.
He is ably supported by a well-honed, true ensemble cast, who, just as in an opera, seize their solo moments well before blending back into the overall texture. This long play, full of complex sequences of action and plot, whizzes past you in the Olivier, a tribute to how well-oiled this production now is.
It is invidious to single out other performances when all had excellent moments, but Nina Sosanya’s Anna Petrovna conferred a warm, constant central focus connecting all the key relationships of the play, while not omitting her less generous moments; and Joshua James gave a memorable portrayal of the self-excoriating doctor who acts as something of a conscience for the audience too.
Des McAleer was a notably sinister local villain who sees through everyone, and Jade Williams did a great deal with the unrewarding role of Sasha, Platonov’s much abused wife, as did Olivia Vinall playing the hilariously brittle urban exile, Sofya.
Among the smaller roles, only lightly characterised in the text, and developing stock roles we have seen in Turgenev and other earlier dramatists, there were several stand-outs.
Jonathan Coy and Mark Donald, as a squabbling father-and-son duo, presented scenes both very funny and extremely cruel in exactly the right blend.
Nicholas Day played to perfection the tiresome, tolerated elderly drunken relative, who crops up in so many Chekhov works, and Sarah Twomey made more than many out of the thankless role of the prim, humourless and teasable chemistry strudent, Maria Grekova. Mark Penfold embodied eloquent put-upon-dignity as Vasili, one of many harassed servants.
The Olivier’s huge stage gives all the scope needed for a lavishly realistic set by Tom Pye – with flexible layers of decking, a stream, a forest and a rail track, as well as interior spaces – all the uneasy liminality that Chekhov requires to match the shifting ground of his characters.
Costumes by Emma Ryott were both in period and unpredictably colourful and inventive, and Mark Henderson’s lighting scheme enhances and enacts the numerous shifts of time, mood and place with skill.
The Olivier is a large and technically complex a space that gives great scope for a creative team to devise a whole sensory world in which to immerse oneself, and it is a credit to the director and to this team that what worked so well at Chichester transfers naturally and successfully to a rather different space.
The problem with this play is its multitudes: too many themes, too many characters, too many shifts of gear. But a bit of judicious pruning and rebalancing by a dramatist who knows his stuff – and his Chekhov – lifts this play above Ivanov, the first finished play by which we usually get to know this author, and gives us a unique insight into the alchemy by which Chekhov honed his art to its multi-stranded best in the final three plays on which his reputation above all rests.
Again Michael Frayn has wise words on this theme. He remarks that the play offers ‘a fundamental ambiguity of tone between comic and tragic, which will eventually be resolved into a characteristic Chekhovian mode, but which appears here as mostly an indeterminate wavering.’ It this potential problem that Hare has worked so hard to eradicate.
And as a result, the play can already be seen as the first example of Chekhov’s unique skill in ‘dramatising the experience of watching life passing you by, and recording the varied and increasingly desperate reactions to it.’
Anyone who cares for Chekhov should make room for this play in their diary, and, for that matter, for the whole Young Chekhov sequence, which individually and cumulatively offer a unique insight into this consummate analyst of the foibles of human nature.