As if one needed a reason to go to the theater in London, here’s one of the better ones: Anton Chekhov, that supreme Russian arbiter of the quietly wounded heart and often noisily wasted life, has stealthily and unarguably become the unofficial favorite son of the Anglo-Irish stage.
Why Chekhov, you might ask, given that the dramatist-cum-doctor trades in a brand of soulfulness that might seem alien to the stiff upper lip and clenched, clipped emotions the English consider their proverbial stock in trade? On the basis of three London openings within four days — two from Chekhov (“Ivanov” and “Uncle Vanya”), the third (Brian Friel’s “Afterplay”) a short contemporary text thoroughly marinated in him — one can see the ongoing and highly specific attraction of this playwright’s gift: Few other dramatists find such tempestuous emotions in the tiniest gesture or sigh, more frequently than not allowing a character to announce one feeling while at the same time suggesting its opposite. That makes Chekhov a natural for a nation innately fond of restraint and yet no less given over to great passion and pain. To that extent, it’s possible to see Chekhov’s abiding affect distilled in Simon Russell Beale’s poignant stumblebum of a Vanya, whose glasses hide a carefully parceled-out ardor and anguish that just cannot be contained.
The particular charge to Chekhov in England comes with the sense — as Ian McKellen, himself an erstwhile Vanya, once remarked — that the Russian forbear “has almost been domesticated as an English playwright.” Not everything is perfect in either “Ivanov” or “Vanya” (though the physical productions for both very much are), while “Afterplay” may strike uninitiates to Chekhov merely as a caprice. But all three stagings convey the unmistakable imprints of (entirely separate) creative teams that know what they are doing, as if each evening were part of an ongoing dialogue with a master whose prismatic meanings will — as the ever-determined Sonya in “Uncle Vanya” might have put it — outlive us all.
Of the three productions, “Ivanov” is both the bravest and potentially the most infuriating, since it goes quite deliberately against what one thinks of as the received Chekhovian grain. Not for director Katie Mitchell the attenuated soulfulness that (in production terms) has come to be this writer’s byword — and to which Sam Mendes’ more traditional if no less scrupulous “Uncle Vanya” for the most part subscribes. Tackling an early Chekhov text that once was rarely performed and now seems to be done all the time (Ralph Fiennes and Kevin Kline have played the title role within the past five years, while the Almeida last fall mounted “Platonov,” its variant in the Chekhov canon), Mitchell delivers the script’s two domestic settings as near-madhouses of barely suppressed bile.
The agitation is borne out in musical snippets from Schnittke and Shostakovich and in a level of activity from a busy cast that sometimes collectively resembles a Daumier painting come to life. The result amplifies the balefulness of the nihilistic anti-Semite of the title (played by Owen Teale, Broadway’s recent Tony-winning Torvald from “A Doll’s House”), a dead-eyed cynic who implodes into himself while the sniping and small-mindedness of rural Russia ca. 1886 carry on around him. Interestingly, for a writer so revered for seeing all his characters in the round, Mitchell and translator David Harrower appear throughout to be passing judgment — not so much anatomizing Chekhov’s vaunted melancholia as chastising those petty social miscreants who serve to perpetuate it.
There’s nothing petty, of course, about the emotions laid bare in “Uncle Vanya,” which follows “Ivanov” by only 12 years but seems both infinitely more compassionate and more crushing. That last quality is heightened in a commendably fierce version of the play from Brian Friel (bizarrely, the “Vanya” program lists the play as being by Friel, as if Chekhov’s contribution were some kind of afterthought) that slices through the scripted round robin of unreciprocated loves, delivering along the way many an unexpected shock. The closing line to the play’s first half has rarely seemed so painfully blunt, while, later on, one is aware of Emily Watson’s rather overearnest Sonya asking rhetorically, “What if I’m unhappy, too?” The implication: Vanya, for all his abject sputtering, doesn’t own the patent on despair.
If Mitchell’s “Ivanov” gives us Chekhov as critique, Mendes — returning to this writer for the first time since his West End “Cherry Orchard” in 1989 — properly sees “Vanya’s” mournful assemblage whole. Helen McCrory’s astonishing Yelena is both cruel and teasing, a shimmering vision in white (the gorgeous costumes are by Mark Thompson) who drifts across Anthony Ward’s clean-lined painterly set as if aware on some unspoken level of the blackness in her heart. Her devoted Vanya snaps at Yelena’s hem like a terrier in heat, only to still the house later with an eruption of impotence that seems to scare even himself. And unlike the successfully suicidal Ivanov, it’s Chekhov’s point (via Friel) that Vanya doesn’t even earn a tragic grandeur, at least in his own clouded, lovesick eyes; instead, we’re told, Vanya is just “a silly old fool” — albeit one whose capacity for feeling cuts grievously deep.
What happened in later life to Vanya? The answer to a question you may not have thought to ask is given in “Afterplay,” Friel’s slight but also sweet imagining of a reunion some two decades on between a now middle-aged Sonya (played by Penelope Wilton) and Andrey (John Hurt), the once-cowed and henpecked brother of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Whereas that play finds the entire Prozorov clan yearning for Moscow, “Afterplay” plunks its duo in a gently derelict Moscow cafe, where Andrey arrives clutching a violin to find Sonya rummaging through papers with the same obsessiveness shown at the end of “Vanya.”
Some are sure to find “Afterplay” essentially a dramatic also-ran, not least because it is unlikely to mean much to auds who aren’t primed for this Sonya’s moving reference to “a passionate tree man,” aka her beloved Astrov. In purely narrative terms, one might wish for a structure that was less reliant on multiple dissemblings, while Friel should know that as good a phrase as the “endless tundra of aloneness” doesn’t need to be said twice. And yet, even when the play seems to be struggling to justify its brief length, the acting offers its own rewards. To hear Hurt intone the single word “splendid” reveals as much as Wilton’s wry delivery that Yelena these days travels “wherever there are shops.” Beneath the apparent brightening of the speaker exists a broken heart that a Chekhov-mad English and Irish theater is quite rightly reluctant to mend.