Chekhov and the Coming Storm.
Carole Woddis ponders the disappearance of politics in recent Chekhov productions.
Chekhov was both prophet and humanist when it came to surveying his Russian society. In his greatest of plays you sense both the deeply felt individualism of each character, the fractious communal living that brings each person’s foibles as if under a microscope and in the best productions, a sense too of the political upheaval that is about to sweep away the complacency and indolence of the old guard to make way for the bustling ways of the new.
Strange then that in two recent Chekhov productions in London, whilst each in their own ways have highlighted individual sorrows, frustrations and despair, the scent of political revolution has been if not silenced at least muted.
In past reviews, I’ve noted how Chekhov, like Shakespeare (particularly Hamlet), gets reinterpreted for each age in its own image.
Of Philip Franks’ 2008 Cherry Orchard Chichester production, I wrote: `It doesn’t seem to matter how many translating hands he goes through, how many directors’ eyes and interpretations he’s subjected to, he and his plays almost never fail to get through to us as a mirror somehow of ourselves.’
So what are we to glean of Russell Bolam’s Uncle Vanya in Anya Reiss’s new version and Katie Mitchell’s production of Simon Stephens’ freshly minted The Cherry Orchard? Neither carries a particularly strong political sense of a society in transition though Mitchell does incorporate a seismic shuddering at one point as if ominous prelude to mysterious forces gathering at the gate.
All is symbolism and metaphor in Chekhov. In Cherry Orchard – the past disappearing before our eyes as represented by the cherry orchard. Or in Uncle Vanya, the estate that simply cannot make ends meet for all the hard work Vanya and Sonya pour into it.
Of Howard Davies’ 2011 National Theatre Cherry Orchard production I wrote:
`I’ve never seen a recent production too that so clearly underlined the play’s class distinctions. In a society on the brink of violent eruption, every scene is a reminder that Ranyevskaya and Gaev’s patrician ways are catastrophically inadequate in the new world rushing in that belongs to nouveau idealists as well as the nouveau riche.’
But here we are in 2014 and from these two Chekhov’s this month, the political aspect is diluted. Perhaps directors grew tired of banging the same old drum: the coming of the revolution. Perhaps they are more interested in showing individual frailty. Or is it that our directors have lost their politics?
Chekhov is never one-dimensional. Even the most seemingly politically aware characters carry something pathetic or farcical about them reflecting perhaps Chekhov’s own scepticism.
All the same, I miss the socio-political charge that some past productions have emphasised. And I think it says something about English society in the autumn of 2014 and our inability or reluctance to engage with the plays’ political elements persuasively, though, heaven knows, outside the theatre walls, the political atmosphere in the country grows more febrile by the minute.
Perhaps we will have to wait for a Cherry Orchard or Seagull in June 2015 by a young director willing to grapple with the here and now through a Chekhov lens to re-discover the volcanic political storm the plays so memorably encapsulated.
© Carole Woddis