(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/4.)
I have spent many all-day sessions in theatres but none quite as powerful as Young Chekhov, which has moved triumphantly from Chichester to the National’s Olivier stage. Its only rival in my experience is the original RSC 1963 production of The Wars of the Roses, recently released on DVD. But while Shakespeare’s trilogy, with its bloodshed and civil war, left one exhausted, this combination of Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull sends one out exhilarated. That is a tribute to Jonathan Kent’s production, David Hare’s version, Tom Pye’s design and a great company. But it is also because one learns so much about Chekhov in the course of a single day.
On a first viewing, I made the obvious point: that you see Chekhov move from farce (Platonov) and melodrama (Ivanov) to the creation of a symphonic realism (The Seagull). But I was struck by something else at the Olivier: that Chekhov, for all his comprehensive compassion, was also a social satirist who saw that the characteristic Russian vice was a demented egotism. Thornton Wilder once wrote of Chekhov’s plays that: “No one hears what anyone else says. Everybody walks in a self-centred dream.”