Taking the Chekhov Challenge

Richard Warburton sees three Chekhov plays in one day at the Chichester Festival Theatre and discovers exactly how much culture a man can take.

I should have got sponsorship for this.  Three plays, one day – a sort of intellectual ironman challenge without the need to change shoes or exercise.  I am in the foyer of the Chichester Festival Theatre, although it looks more like Starbucks with everyone clasping cups of hot drinks.  The atmosphere is subdued.  We are the hardcore ones limbering up for a trilogy of Chekhov’s early plays.  We have an awful lot of sitting down ahead of us but we are ready for it.

I pat my pocket and feel the reassuring tube of strong mints – a kind of pick-me-up for any longueurs; smelling salts for a drowsy groundling.  My shoes are slip-ons in case I need to wiggle my toes.  Handkerchief, bottle of water and a bellyful of full English breakfast from Bill’s, (hold the baked beans), and I’m all set.  I flex my shoulders and fish out the tickets.

‘Platonov’s first up.’

‘Good,’ says Alison, whose idea this was.  ‘I’m looking forward to it.’

There is a whiff of competitiveness in the air she doesn’t seem to have caught.  Eyeing my fellow entrants I see they are the usual Chichester audience; the men look like Dan Cruickshank and the women range from overdressed Sybil Fawlty types to benign Miss Marples.  They’re old hands with stamina to burn, but they don’t know that I have stood a dozen times at The Globe.  I have been shoved aside by one of Othello’s lieutenants and stood my ground as a dozen Italian students invaded my personal space.

If this were a triathlon then Platonov (stress on the ‘ton’) would be the swim.  A reviving dip, a paddle in the shallows of Chekhovian tragedy.  I’ve seen Uncle Vanya so am ready for samovars, tasteful dachas and existential crises.  The auditorium is about two thirds full.  A solitary black man sits in a sea of white faces.

As I settle down it occurs to me that this is probably the time that film critics go to the cinema.  I count my blessings that I am not at an Adam Sandler preview and while away the time listing all the Russian words I know in alphabetical order.  I am wondering whether cosmonaut is actually a Russian word when the lights go down.

Platonov, turns out to be a barnstormer loaded with wit and enough brains to conform to the rules of the intellectual triathlon.  The eponymous lead, a disillusioned schoolmaster, flits from one besotted woman to another.  The Scottish actor playing him struts the stage like a disdainful llama spitting vitriol at those who would listen and those who would not.  The audience begins to embrace this Glaswegian rake. And as he senses he has us in his grasp, he lets rip his inner Billy Connelly, moaning, incredulous and very funny.

We lunch at my mother in law’s and over a soggy M&S salad I peruse the paper.  Paul Hollywood’s face stares back at me, evidently flogging something off the back of Bake Off’s recent success.  Charlie Brooker once described him as a laser-eyed barn owl and he is looking particularly strigine today.  I imagine the young Hollywood as something of a Platonov, seducing a string of lovers with his delicate Florentines and wowing them with his impressive showstopper.

We mistime our return to the theatre.  The lobby is deserted but for programme sellers totting up their takings.  An actor is on stage tapping his watch and staring at us.  He isn’t, he’s reading, but we feel like pariahs as we squeeze past a row of knees skewed wearily to one side.  I am never sure whether to offer the crotch or behind.  I face the stage and sit down as the house manager cues the actor with a thumbs-up from the darkened gangway.

Ivanov is as dreary as Platonov was playful.  Ivanov himself is a half-hearted Hamlet who spends his time whingeing about the hopelessness of it all.  After the interval my left leg starts to ache and I’m dying to stand and flex it.  I could walk out – it is that tedious.  But I am a coward and so resort to stretching it under the seat in front being careful not to nudge its occupant.  In the end Ivanov shoots himself.

‘Thank f*** for that,’ mutters Ali.

It seems churlish not to applaud.  So we give thanks much like one does for a botched haircut.  Mirror held to admire the back of your head, ‘That’s great.’  Money tended, tip included, around the corner and try to rearrange the damage in a shop window.

We are depressed.  We drink.  We are turning into Chekhov characters.  I put a gun to my head. A meal at Cote revives us.  Over a pink tuna Nicoise I conclude that they put the useless play in the middle of the sandwich and that the best will be saved for last.  The Seagull will restore us.  Anna Chancellor’s in it.  Duck-face to the rescue.

If you have ever been to a school reunion you will recall that disorienting sensation.  Faces are longer, hair has changed colour or vanished completely.  Bellies strain under pullovers and foxes have morphed into babushkas.  Tonight some of the actors are appearing for the third time.  They pop up in different clothes, with different hairstyles and accents.  The whole thing is beginning to blur into a vodka fuelled orgy of discontent.  Ivanov shows up again, this time playing a writer who whines.  Chancellor is good though and brings a welcome bit of stardust.

At half time Ali issues a challenge, ‘Who’s going to die – the lovesick boy or the flighty ingénue?’  I say neither.  Surely Chekhov can end a play without a death or suicide.

The gunshot is still ringing in my ears as we clap our cast back to the stage.  I think I have seen a good play but my mouth is thick with too many mints and Chekhov fatigue has left me befuddled.  Walking through the car park at half past ten, the smell of bonfires is in the air and I feel that first flush of wintry excitement.  Then I hear someone mention Christmas and I’m feeling all Checkovian again.  Back at home we resist the urge to drink shots of vodka until we argue and instead go to bed.  I expect I will dream of tortured artists and caviar but I don’t.


Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull run until 14th November at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.