Chichester Theatre has put on this season three Chechkov plays – The Seagull and his first two, Platonov and Ivanov under the banner Birth of a Genius. This might be stretching it in the case of the latter two which I saw these past 6 days.
Platonov is very much a first draft . Platonov is a young teacher, a wastrel, who inveigles himself on women whilst inattentive to his own wife and the health of their child. He is an unattractive self-absorbed character played by Joshua James and it’s difficult to see why women fall for him.
Ivanov (Samuel West), a landowner beset by problems, is a more subtle personality and the play has greater depth. Married to a Jewish woman, Anna (Nina Sosanya), who is dying of tuberculosis, an illness that afflicted Checkhov all his life, impecunious as he has charged his estate to his neighbour Pavel Lebedev (Jonathan Coy) and is unable to pay interest on the debt, and to complicate matters the daughter of the neighbour is in love with him. Is he – like Platonov – a self absorbed man or is he someone bravely trying to overcome the position in which he is in? This is the heart of the play. He takes criticism chiefly from the doctor who is treating his wife and is the subject of gossip by others in the neighbourhood from the estate class. He typifies a decaying society where the landowning class is struggling but still retains its snobbish sense of self importance.
In both plays the stage was visually exciting. Chichester has a large stage which could be adopted to scenes in the open air and interior. Checkhov favours a party in the country and the trees and lighting created a sylvan quality.
One interesting aspect of Ivanov is the anti-semitism and racism of the language. Ivanov at one point calls his wife “a dirty Jew”; others deride him for marrying a Jewess (“never marry a Jew” says one guest). The neighbour says he is worse than a serf, a negro. Should such offensive language be moderated to suit the the sensibilities of the 2015 audience? My own view is not. It’s not as if this racism stems from Checkhov but rather his characters. In particular Ivanov attracts sympathy and censure in equal measure and such remarks are essential to grasp his character and the society from which he is drawn. I know one of the cast well and was able to ask him what they thought. He said the issue did come up in rehearsals, especially as Nina (as Anna) is of mixed parentage and they decided to be faithful to the text. Sir David Hare helped to adapt the play and he is known for his left wing views so he must have found this issue testing. In other ways, inability to repay debt whilst maintaining image, the Jewish dislike of marrying “out”, care for your wife when you love another are very much contemporary real issues which Chechov dramatises with acuity.