In this time of war it is all the more important that we maintain and sustain the function of art in our world to question and explore the human condition in all its complex and nuanced dimensions. Chekhov is just such an artist. As writer of plays and short stories he has left us some of the most telling and compelling accounts of what it means to be human. Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and the Three Sisters are the most widely known but he also wrote some of the finest short stories ever penned. Indeed his fellow Russian Vladimir Nabokov declared that The Lady with a Dog was “one of the greatest stories ever written.” Mark Giesser has adapted this story (written in 1899) and set it in 1920s Britain. He also directs so he is very much the controlling mind of the whole project. It works a treat. He has put together a very watchable and engaging version of Chekhov’s masterpiece.
Giesser expands Chekhov’s story of a holiday romance between Anne and Damian by bringing their respective partners into the picture. So the holiday Shirley Valentine scenario is made much more nuanced as we are witness to not two but four points of view. This works really well and gives the play depth, poignancy and humour that goes further than Chekhov’s original. To paraphrase Princess DI’s famous remark “there are four people in this relationship.”
Chekhov is best known for his depiction of characters who are searching for happiness which is never quite graspable. The couple at the heart of Lady with a Dog, Anne and Damian, are good examples of this. Anne, wonderfully embodied by Beth Burrows, is a bored young wife on holiday on her own accompanied by her dog, a Pomeranian. The breed is a metaphor. It was considered a toy dog and this is how Anne is considered by men like her husband Carl and her pursuer Damian – as a mere toy. Damian is twenty years older than Anne – the original I think for Lolita hence Nabokov’s enthusiasm for the story – and gets his kicks by pursuing a different young woman every year on his annual holiday from his job in the bank and his wife and children. So Anne is a kind of Shirley Valentine type searching for holiday romance to escape her wretched domestic ennui. But she is haunted by the age-old fears that beset liberated women – will I be considered a slut? Or a common tart as Elaine calls her. And Damian is the classic Casanova, Don Juan or in modern terms Michael Caine’s Alfie who enjoys both the thrill of the chase and sadistically tormenting his conquests. He likes it when they fall in love with him and he knows he’s won but immediately drops them. Cat and mouse as it were or the mousetrap.
But this being Chekhov paradoxes are at work. Giesser brings Carl and Elaine on stage. So now we have the cheated-on partners watching and commenting on the affair. This has a kind of double effect. On the one hand, we think no wonder they’re both having an affair if this is what home looks like but on the other hand we begin to see the situation from the point of view of Carl and Elaine. Carl – a comic gem of a performance from the terrific Toby Manley – has an eye problem, likes golf, bridge and shooting, wears tweeds and leather loafers but is sweet and quite charming. Elaine – Laura Glover is spot on – hard-headed and cynical but knows Damian won’t abandon her and the children and so turns a blind eye. Damian – the impressive Richard Lynson – the villain of the piece has in fact much self-knowledge and significant insight into his own motives and behaviour. He gives Hamlet-like soliloquies in fact. He is also cognisant of Jimmy Goldsmith’s famous remark that when a wealthy man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy. In other words, the game never ends. All four characters are real in other words. And what Chekhov is showing is that other people are as real as we are and knowing that changes everything.
We are all forced to come to terms with Kant’s categorical imperative. If I do this, can I live with myself for eternity? That is the question. Always has been the question always will be the question. The genius of Chekhov is to bring it vividly to life in a few pages. And Geisser’s taken that and turned it into a wonderful hour and forty minutes of compelling drama.
Review by John O’Brien
Damian Granville is a devoted family man with an unconventional hobby: he summers alone looking for a woman to seduce. This year he spots a beautiful lady walking a dog. He’s a skilful player, but Anne Dennis is much more than he bargained for.
Chekhov’s story that Nabokov called ‘one of the greatest ever written’ returns in this bittersweet romantic comedy transported to Jazz Age Britain.
Chekhov’s famous short story of romance and infidelity is modernised and reimagined for the British Jazz Age
Written and directed by Mark Giesser
Assistant directed by Isaac Bernier-Doyle
Choreography by Xena Gusthart
Set design by Intellectual Propery
Lighting design by Sam M Owen
Costume design by Alice McNicholas
Stage management by Denisha Parmenter
Beth Burrows, Laura Glover, Richard Lynson, Toby Manley
Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 13th September – 8th October
Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 1 North Rd, Highgate Village, London N6 4BD