It was around seven years ago when I picked up and perused my first Chekhov play. An over-inquisitive English Literature A-Level student, one day I decided to pick my teacher’s brain and brazenly asked: ‘what is it about Shakespeare’s works that justifies the veneration they receive?’. From his infinite wisdom, Dr Winborn uttered something about the level of understanding of his characters, and the way he is able to explore and showcase their inner selves with depth. He then exclaimed that the only other person who was able to this so well, was Chekhov; a man I had at that point never heard of. Standing behind Dr Winborn was Mr Wood, my other English teacher, and a man of equal levels of wisdom. He voiced his concurrence with Dr Winborn’s assertion: ‘hmm yes, Chekhov does do that indeed’.
So it was settled. With all this hype about ‘Chekhov’ I had no choice but to investigate the man myself! I popped along to WH-Smiths, plucked an Oxford World’s Classics version of his five major plays off the shelf and took that baby home. Play one was Ivanov, a soft and accessible entry into his canon given the presence of a main character, a narrative drive, a build to a climax and reasonably clear message; aspects of storytelling I was already used to. In for a Penny in for a pound I jumped headlong into play two, The Seagull, a play more reminiscent of his more mature, quintessential self and more characteristic of the remainder of the plays within the collection. Naturally this reading experience was not quite the same. I was confronted by new, radical methods of storytelling that I was not used to and did not know how to process: within the macrostructure, there was no build throughout up to a climax; there was no main character; there were long, seemingly inconsequential droves of text where characters seemed to be talking about nothing; there was no core narrative thrust or trajectory.
As peculiar and sedate as I found this play and the remaining three that I subsequently read over the years, I was held by a certain insightfulness I found within them, particularly in Chekhov’s monologues where he mines deep into his characters’ souls. Taste wise, I’ve always been transfixed by taut and high tension domestic drama and so naturally my loyalties have laid more with Ibsen, his 20th century American acolyte Eugene O’neill and his peers Miller and Williams. Aside from the commonality of naturalistic setting and dialogue, Chekhov appears to eschew everything that these men stood for, in favour of something totally different. In this sense, there has always been a tension between me and Chekhov but simultaneously a deep curiosity regarding the idiosyncrasy of his plays and why/how they work.
Thus, working on Three Sisters has been a perfect opportunity to continue my artistic journey with this writer. I came in with the a deep curiosity as to what kind of theatrical experience a Chekhov text could create and whether such an experience could be deemed equally valuable than those undergirded by alternative dramaturgical models. As per my taste, the director, Rebecca Frecknall , has a background in taut domestic classics. Her Julie at Northern Stage received great critical acclaim, not to mention the sensational Summer and Smoke which has just been nominated for five Olivier Awards (including best director!). In this sense, she too has been entering into new territory. Thus far my discoveries have been fourfold:
What Chekhov does uniquely is to create an authentic simulation of how real life is for most ordinary people, much of which is spent sitting around doing very little. Most dramatic pieces shine a spotlight on a single character in their pursuit of a very particular want over the course of a piece. often, every given moment is a segment of a developing and unfolding journey towards an end destination and thus you always feel like you are ‘progressing’. In Chekhov, there is usually no such protagonist and, although his characters are pursuing wants, their pursuit of them is not the focus of every given moment. Rather, time and space is given for his characters to just be; debating, playing cards, telling jokes. Instead of ‘progressing’, you often feel like you are standing still.
However, Chekhov is not so artless as to depict a random set of individuals engaging in banal human activity. Rather, the environment of Chekhov’s characters is always very particular. In Three Sisters his characters are in a provincial town that fundamentally cannot meet their inner yearnings for lives with value and meaning. Thus, in depicting his characters ‘being’, he is providing an insightful, thorough and psychologically accurate picture of life within a very particular environment. In this sense it provides a fascinating psychological study. Thus, although, in Chekhov, you lose out on the constant sense of ‘progress’ it is made up for in the level of insight you receive into human nature.
Chekhov’s characters openly engage in philosophical debate. To some this might seem slightly on the nose; is it not better to embed philosophy within narrative? However, the beauty of Chekhov’s handling of this is that he does both. The philosophical ideas being debated by the characters are the same ones that the narrative is exploring, namely; whether life has meaning and where to find it. There is tremendous power in being confronted by philosophical ideas in two radically different forms within the same piece.
In addition, The impulse to debate is always prompted or undergirded by something else that is going on in the moment related to the character, be it: the need to distract oneself from deep sexual tension due to having been interrupted in the middle of an adulterous embrace; an inner sense of loneliness or the desire to fit in to state a few examples. In this sense, although there is a philsosophical discussion taking place it still feels deeply embedded within human stories and struggles. Rebecca and Cordelia (our adaptor) have been particularly skilled at mining this subtextual content.
Chekhov is very much one of the godfathers of naturalism. However, this is not to say that his work is not poetic. Yes, he captures the rhythm, and cadence of everyday speech in his work, but simultaneously he plays with imagery, repetition and structure. In this sense his work goes beyond writing that is purely naturalistic. Referring to 20th Century American drama, screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) used the phrasing ‘one level above the real’ and I think this style of writing is absolutely prefigured here. Like a melody to a song, or cinematography to a film, these elements add so much colour and beauty to Chekhov’s works.
As aforesaid, In Three Sisters there is not the constant sense of progress towards one end goal or a solution to a particular problem. There are narrative strands, but these are embedded into a larger whole comprising largely of the mere depiction of life for a particular people in a particular environment. In this sense, at the end you do not get the satisfaction of ‘having arrived’ that you might get in other narratives. What you do get, however, is a sense of being at the end of a key chapter in these characters lives, after which life is going to change quite significantly for each one of them. No character has attained what they wanted, each one however, has been through a unit of life that has changed them and inspired a new perspective. Therefore, there is a sense of conclusion, despite the fact that things have not been neatly tied up.
The beauty of this lack of neatness is that we are not given an answer to the philosophical provocation of the piece. Rather we are inspired to reflect on the question of meaning in life that the play explores, and invited to hope with the characters for an answer. To me this invitation makes the ending more active, in regards to what it provokes in the viewer, than other plays might be.
In conclusion, working on this play has taught me that Chekhov is a seriously distinctive playwright- In my view, as distinctive as figures such as Beckett and Brecht. Although he can be paired with Ibsen and Strindberg in having launched naturalism, dramaturgically, his works differ significantly from theirs in his boldness not to have the plot (which is not non-existent) constantly rattling forward, but sometimes moving nowhere at all. In doing this, he enables the viewer to sit and watch his characters simply be. Although Chekhov’s plays might not be as easy to watch as other pieces due to their unconventional nature, as outlined, there is undoubtedly tremendous value in this dramaturgical model.
Ebenezer Bamgboye - Resident Director
Three Sisters runs 6 April - 1 June 2019