Saturday, May 22, 2010

Day 44: Me and Anton Pavlovich

Chekhov, notable for his plays, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and a swag of short stories, was born in Taganrog, Russia, in 1860, dying only 44 years later; a man who described medicine as his wife and writing as his mistress.

Where should I begin? I am, by no stretch of the imagination, anywhere near an authority on Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, but he and and I, or should I say "his work and I" bump into each other and when we do, I feel like he's an acquaintance that I should spend more time with, because my life is richer with him in it.

First bump: I spent many many years, worrying so much that I would live my life and not read some of the great writers everyone was banging on about, that one day twenty years ago, on a whim, I bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics collection of Chekhov’s plays. I think I gave him half an hour of my time and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Bump #2: My first week at NIDA (see yesterday’s thoughts) and we, the directing course participants were thrown into a week-long workshop with the third year acting students, under the charismatic guidance of director/teacher Lindy Davies. We observed the actors and Lindy interrogate and bring scenes to full-blooded life, from The Three Sisters. My heart sent messages to my head that maybe this was what the all fuss was about.

Third Bump: I become the assistant director on the Second Year actor’s production of The Three Sisters (translation by Irish playwright Brian Friels). I make some great, great, friends whose company I still find myself in, sixteen years on. I will probably never have another Three Sisters experience like that one again in my life.

Bump #4: My first gig as a director: an extra-curriculum piece that I put on at drama school - Chekhov’s short play, Swan Song.

And so it has gone, over the years. William Goldman, the screenwriter (Misery, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride) talking about Ingmar Bergman, digresses for a second when he says this: “Chekhov is THE playwright of the last hundred years and Bergman works the same side of the street. Heartbreaking, sure, but sometimes laughter. Funny/sad. Think it’s easy? Good luck.”

Friends of mine have directed and designed and acted in various productions of Chekhov’s plays, I saw Cate Blanchett in the Belvoir Street Theatre production of The Seagull, Woody Allen’s Hannah & Her Sisters (one of my favourite films) is an homage to Three Sisters, I love the movie Vanya On 42nd Street....I keep bumping into him - Chekhov - and did then, did I bump into him, or did I bump into him, just over three years ago?!

Cold January 2007, London, Sloane Square, The Royal Court Theatre. I had two more nights in England before returning home to Australia. I was in the grips of a favourite pastime of mine - hypochondria (I won’t go into the gory details right now) - and this was my one and only chance to see a preview of the new production of The Seagull, in a translation fresh from the computer keyboard of Christopher Hampton (writer of films Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American and too many plays to mention).

All seats were sold, the only option being to go into a mini lottery for any returns or pay the princely sum of twenty-two pence (that wouldn’t even by you a button these days) for an obscured vision standing ticket. 22p....what’s to lose? I mean, the cast included Art Malik (the evil-doer in The Living Daylights), Carey Mulligan (Oscar-nominated Best Actress this year for An Education) Chiwetel Ejiofor (Love Actually), Mackenzie Crook (Gareth from The Office), Katherine Parkinson (the receptionist from Doc Martin) and...and...and, in the lead role of Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, the wonderful and effulgent (look it up), Kristin Scott Thomas.

When theatre does what only theatre can do, the cathartic experience can be had in a way that film cannot compete with. That Monday night, that obscured standing ticket experience was one of those hen’s teeth occasions. When the curtain came down for the interval at the end of Act One and again at the end of Act Two, I could not, dare not, leave my spot, lest the hermetically-sealed dream be broken by queueing for a tub of ice cream. Plus, my feet were emotionally nailed to the floor.

Remember, I’d seen the exact same play a few years earlier with the “great" Cate (absolutely no disrespect intended to anyone involved in that production) and it was, a reasonable night in the theatre (doesn’t sound thrilling does it?). Here, this night in SW-whatever-postcode, my soul was melting or evanescing or something??!! When the curtain finally came down on Act Three, they had to hose me off the floor....I think other members of the audience had to step over me on their way out.

How can a playwright have such power over me? I’ll offer you these words from The Three Sisters:

“I’ve got something to confess to you. I must get some relief, I feel the need of it in my heart. I’ll confess it to you, and then never again, never to anybody. It’s a secret, but you’ll have to know everything. I can’t keep silent any more. I’m in love, in love...I love that man.”

Day #44 Tip: Have An Affair With Chekhov
I know, it may not sound like much of a Tip, but believe me, this advice is gold or whatever’s the most precious metal you can think of.....Bohrium or Seaborghium maybe.

I’ll paraphrase Bill Goldman again (again, he was talking Bergman, but the cap fits Chekhov): “...he takes you places you’ve never been before, never knew existed, and you know you’ll never be quite the same after.”

I think that Anton Pavlovich Chekhov mines, understands and reveals the human condition like no other dramatic writer. But, I must add a caveat: I can’t "get this" by just reading, watching or intellectually understanding, I have to experience it, viscerally so, and that only happens when certain celestial bodies line up in the sky in a unique formation.

I hope those stars come again. I hope they come for you too.

No comments:

Post a Comment