‘The only difference between doctors and lawyers is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and kill you, too’
Oh that Cheeky Chekhov! Your typical Russian writer? Maybe not. However, the thing about Russian poetry, music, literature and theatre is that it’s not all about endless snow drifts in the steppes, the 1812 Overture, Doctor Zhivago, War & Peace or Crime & Punishment. Chekhov himself is perhaps the most misunderstood of the Russian dramatists, mainly due to the dominance within his portfolio of his four famous full length plays, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters. While these justify classification as a serious drama, surprisingly Chekhov considered himself comedic. Thanks to Talk is Free Theatre, we have the opportunity to see his side of the argument.
But it’s true; with Chekhov sometimes you need a handkerchief for tears of sorrow. However, in the case of Talk is Free Theatre’s upcoming production of The Sneeze, the handkerchief is for tears of laughter. Here, Chekhov’s playfulness and humour is revealed to Barrie-area audiences through a compilation of his early short stories and plays, translated and adapted by well-known British playwright and author Michael Frayn (Copenhagen, Noises Off).
Be prepared to laugh, and loudly.
Watch Stratford super-star Lucy Peacock and her two fellow-actors, Nigel Bennett and Brian Tree, deftly shift between a total of eighteen different characters as Chekhov’s vignettes and short stories are played out on the stage. Those transitions themselves will be marvellous to watch. ‘We support each other whenever one of us might have a heaver load than the other’ explains Ms. Peacock. ‘What is so charming about this piece is that it’s collaboration. It’s wonderful working with Nigel, Brian and our director Marti Maraden and of course Arkady.’ While Ms. Peacock finds it fun bouncing from one character to another, there is the challenge of changing costumes, let alone characters. However, this does not daunt her. After all, her career at Stratford, which presents works in repertory, requires an ability to shift from one play to another seamlessly. ‘One year I was performing a one-woman show with multiple characters, plus three shows at the Festival, so there were nine people I was carrying around with me.’
Here is small taste of what we can look forward to within this collage of skits and short plays; In Drama, Ms. Peacock plays a woman with high literary ambitions who insists on imposing a reading of her play on an established writer; In The Bear, a widow with a delusional sense of where her life is headed; In The Swansong, an aging male actor who drunkenly addresses an empty theatre about his past successes.
Chekhov: ‘The ultimate universalist’
The vast history of Russian writing that includes Chekhov has evolved through centuries of governmental and cultural change. Through these human experiences flows rich prose, poetry and music. Yes, these experiences include hardship; all western literature does. However, also included are less strenuous observations of the human condition in society, no matter in what part of the world we might live. Here we find Anton Chekhov.
‘These are eight little skits, or little plays, and that belie the myth that Chekhov’s writing is endless and dreary’ explains Ms. Peacock. ‘The thing about all Chekhov’s plays is that there is a tremendous amount of humanity. He writes of the pathos of humans and as a result he walks that line between what is a sort of madness and what is a sort of desperation. He really pushes the envelope.’
British playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre director Sir David Hare calls Chekhov ‘The ultimate universalist…. He is able to convey life in all its layered complexities and, in so doing, seem relevant to any age, every generation.’ (1) This is something Lucy Peacock agrees with completely; he is a master of observation. ‘Chekhov was both a doctor and a writer but not an incredibly wealthy man. As a doctor he treated people from all classes and was aware of all the people around him in different shapes and sizes, wealthy and not wealthy.’
Chekhov’s influence runs deep in English language writing
Sir David is high on a list of famous British writers who have indulged themselves in Chekhov through translations or adaptations, spawning a minor industry in Britain nearly 120 years after his death, a list that includes Tom Stoppard, William Boyd and of Michael Frayn, perhaps the acknowledged master translator of his work today.
Although some of those authors may not be household names in North American, one of contemporary theatre’s most accessible writers, American Neil Simon, has also found inspiration from Chekov in three of his works in particular; The Good Doctor, Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Sunshine Boys. Simon refers to Chekhov as his ‘non-consenting collaborator’(2). It’s Chekhov’s humanity that at is key for Simon, an admiration for the Russian’s mixture of humour and poignancy further evident when Simon remarks “I cannot think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain…I always found the absurdity of how we live our lives, I always looked for the pain when I write about it’ (3)
‘It’s really in our DNA to try to overcome fear, grief, and vulnerability’ observes Ms. Peacock. ‘If you think about ‘real life’, it’s when things get pushed to the limits of your abilities on any given level, socially or economically or emotionally, that our beings try to actually overcome; and sometimes we have to laugh at the madness of it all. The pressure that results can push us either one way or the other.’
At the same time, there is no desire by Chekhov to draw conclusions about his characters. ‘The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness.’ (4)…. “I am often asked what it was that I wanted to say in this or that story. To these questions I never have any answer. There is nothing I want to say. My concern is to write, not to teach!’(5)
Chekhov: a trip to the spa versus the gym
Ms. Peacock brings these humanistic characterisations to the stage itself. ‘The thing is, as an actor when you are playing any of these parts, no matter if it’s the lowest servant or the highest magistrate, there is the humanity from which comes pain and pathos and joy, all those things we can live at any given second, from moment to moment, a million times a day.’
Because our perception and access to Chekhov is so colored by his four famous full length plays, having the opportunity to perform a Chekhov work that breaks perception is a delight for an actor such as Lucy Peacock. ‘For me, doing Shakespeare is like going to the gym; doing Chekhov is like going to the spa! The actor is actively connected to the characters. There is something incredibly fulfilling and rewarding when doing his work. When Arkady, Marti and I started discussing returning to Barrie, we were drawn to Chekhov; maybe it’s because we don’t get to do it as often.’ Interestingly, Ms. Peacock will be performing a fresh new translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull by Canadian Peter Hinton at the Segal Theatre in Montreal in February, giving her a winter full of one of her favorite playwrights.
The Sneeze, starring Lucy Peacock, Nigel Bennett and Brian Tree, directed by Marti Maraden, opens November 28th for 7 performances until December 7th.
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(1) Voices in Translation: Bridging Cultural Divides
(3) The Good Doctor dramaturgy
(4) Neil Simon: by Susan Koprince
(5) To Maria Kiselyova, January 14, 1887
(2) letter to Maria Kiselyova, January 14, 1887