This show does not claim historical accuracy, which essentially means that, at least artistically speaking, the sky’s the limit. But being unconstrained by the possible mundanity of actual events doesn’t stop this version of the playwright Anton Chekhov (Anthony Cozens) being as melancholy as one of the downcast characters in his plays. Here, he bemoans boredom, the result of what he believes to be years spent in the arts that maybe, just maybe, had been better applied to civic works and making better use of his medical schooling.
Olga Knipper (Louise Devlin), whom the actual Chekhov would marry at a point later than the show’s narrative reaches, tries to rehearse lines in such a way that forces Konstantin Stanislavski (Edward Tidy), studiously writing at a table, to stop and take notice. Chekhov is initially dismissive of her – and without knowing that they would later enter matrimony, one would not necessarily reasonably assume that their relationship would ever be anything other than cordial, if not friendly. The set is reminiscent of a rehearsal space – miscellaneous costumes are dotted around the room, for instance.
The Moscow Art Theatre, which is still going (though I couldn’t find out much about its current season, its website quite naturally being in Russian) is the brainchild, at least as far as this play is concerned, of Alexander Artyom (John Rayment), though even here Chekhov is almost scathing in his pithy assessment of it being a new theatre that challenges old constraints and regulations by imposing new ones which creatives, actors and patrons must subscribe to instead. There are extracts from plays, performed in the rehearsal room, which Artyom is more than happy to participate fully in. The backdrop of actors simply honing their craft makes watching what are rather intense scenes with belligerent characters strangely pleasant. An appropriate typographical error in the show’s programme even lists one of Chekhov’s works as The Cheery Orchard.
Before the show started, the theatre had the hushed atmosphere of a library, with Knipper reading in silence while Stanislavski continued to either write a play of his own or otherwise respond to correspondence. An extract from The Bear demonstrates how relatively progressive Chekhov – and the Moscow Art Theatre – could be: yes, Artyom’s Smirnov barks at Knipper’s Popova, but the play, which premiered in 1888, gives power to the woman, to the point where Smirnov, for all his demands and abrasiveness, is wrapped around her fingers.
Further extracts are performed in an increasingly hammy manner, as if to make light in front of the playwright how supposedly ridiculous some of the lines and narratives are. At one point, Chekhov even sits on the floor in the corner, downstage right, with his hands over his ears. Whether he does so in a mocking fashion or is genuinely distressed to see his plays performed in this way is anyone’s guess – perhaps it could be both. It also demonstrates how far the Moscow Art Theatre had to go at the time to move away from the melodramatic tendencies of mainstream Russian theatre at the time towards a more realistic approach.
There’s not a huge amount to be learned about Chekhov himself (even an imagined version of Chekhov), only some insight into how he spends his time (or doesn’t), and what he gets up to – suffice to say he doesn’t exactly work a steady nine-to-five job. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to see Stanislavski stir himself out of a melancholy state, and the youthful vigour and enthusiasm of Artyom is palpable. An engaging and delightful play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Oddservants Theatre present a playful celebration of Anton Chekhov’s life, work and famous wit this August. The new play is set in an 1897 rehearsal as formidable acting pioneer Stanislavski sets about challenging the Establishment at the famous Moscow Arts Theatre. Like all revolutions though, things aren’t necessarily going to plan. Audiences can expect battles with authority, troublesome actors, crushing self-doubt and epic procrastination in the first performance of this fast-paced historical comedy. Chekhov in Moscow is penned by Mike Carter, newly announced as the Space’s Literary Manager and directed by debutant Lizzie Quinn.
Following thorough literary research, Chekhov in Moscow seamlessly combines Chekhov’s short Vaudeville plays, monologues and published letters with, admittedly, a bit of historical guesswork to recreate a moment in history that may have changed theatre forever.
CHEKHOV IN MOSCOW
Playwright Mike Carter
Director Lizzie Quinn
Performance Dates 27th August – 1st September
The Space, 269 Westferry Road, E14 3RS
Cast Anton Chekhov – Antony Cozens
Konstantin Stanislavski – Edward Tidy
Olga Knipper – Louise Devlin
Alexander Artyom – John Rayment