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Surface Tension: The Chekhov Obsession

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Surface Tension: The Chekhov Obsession

by Andrew Upton on January 8, 2017 (January 8, 2017) filed under Theatre | Comment Now
Andrew Upton contemplates the magnetic qualities that compel us to revisit the great Russian playwright time and time again.

Interior. A Trunk. Moscow.

Written in pencil, the graphite having pressed, faded and rubbed against itself under the near tectonic pressure of the over-packed, tightly crammed trunk. Set amongst clothing and crumbling daguerreotypes of long dead ghosts. Crushed in the dull, daily bits and pieces of his sister’s life; a whacking fistful of (almost scrap) paper, unbound and heavy with neglect, lies littered with the crossings and re-crossings of a young Anton Chekhov. An unnamed play, his first; unedited, unperformed – and at this point unread.

So the story goes.

The discovery of Chekhov’s first play was a matter of chance. Found in his sister’s trunk in an attic in the 1920s. Had that lonely insignificant trunk been swept up and smashed into the rest of the heaping debris of the Russian Revolution, would Chekhov’s first play even have existed? Is there such a thing as an unperformed play? At what point does a play come into existence? Given that it is nearly nothing really until it is spoken, embodied... brought to life by the performers?

Imagine the fussy neo-bureaucrat who uncovered it, though. Imagine the trunk, heaving open with those tightly sprung dresses gasping for air. There – I see it lying on the surface, like a chunk of shale – that sheaf of paper. Fossilised in its leaves, a swarm of people who have never even (yet) existed.

Speaking of people who never even existed (and how influential they can be...) one of my most important memories of theatre was Richard Roxburgh as Hamlet in Neil Armfield’s production at Belvoir Street in the 1990s. That play is of course quite good, and so – interestingly – it continues to act as a net in which each generation hauls up its intellectual and emotional nourishment from out of the white noise of the raging torrent of silence and emptiness that surrounds and slowly engulfs us.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh © Lisa Tomasetti

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But who is Hamlet? (Who never even existed and who has not died for 500 years, roughly.) Why do we keep putting his story on? And why did Chekhov have a go at writing him in The Seagull? (Who is Kostya if not some kind of reworked Hamlet?) And why did Samuel Beckett have a shot at him? (Who is Vladimir in Waiting for Godot if not some kind of microscopically re-examined Hamlet-condition?) 

Interestingly Richard Roxburgh played Kostya’s nemesis, Trigorin (in another of Neil Armfield’s productions; The Seagull, which also starred Cate Blanchett). Richard has also played Vladimir’s companion Estragon in Sydney Theatre Company’s recent Waiting for Godot. A great actor must expect to orbit that dark star, (I suppose). 

And what a brilliant discovery Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armield made of Horatio in that long ago production of Hamlet that I return to... every other paragraph...? But, who’s counting?

My point is what, you ask?

Too many things really, but probably mostly – that theatre is a ghost show. The recycling of story-lines, the retelling of classics is a vital part of theatre’s lifeblood, not from a lack of invention, not from a lack of tales to tell, but because the greatness of theatre resides in the perspective it can offer on perspective – because what is glimpsed through the lens of the meniscus is different every time. The point of approach to a classic allows a light to shine back on the times in which we live. It is a mirror (as Shakespeare knew), but it is a liquid mirror, and some part of US is allowed through to the other side, the other world. And some part of IT makes its way through to ours.

My first memory of Cate Blanchett as an actress is in Oleanna by David Mamet. This is a ferocious play, angry and indeed millimetres away from a rabid dog bark. And she dug out of that wild (in lesser hands, potentially monotonous) howl, the range and subtlety of a real person. A person that never even existed was brought into the world. Who was it that said “after God, Shakespeare created most”? A Frenchman I’m sure. I’m interested in these ‘Characters’... these blueprints of people that go on living and being re-invented by great actors over time and who give us something new. And just how ‘new’ it is we understand directly because we already had an idea of what to expect of the story. This is the ghost show and it connects us across time and across culture, and in that instant in the theatre it brings us together around the plight of this imagined other person.

"This was a great coming together of a generation of Australian talent inside a truly great play. As simple and rare as an exquisite lamington."

At Sydney Theatre Company we have been privileged, as an audience, to see some of the great female characters of the Western canon given life by this magnificent actress. When I say life, it is not life like an independent existence but a special life force – one that is very much of this time and another. One of the powers of theatre must be this witnessing of this life force. Great actors giving body to these shades, these ghosts that haunt us. One of my favourite moments in my theatrical life – (or lives? Do we benefit from this invention as well?... anyway I digress) – one of my favourite moments was when Cate and Hugo Weaving were on stage in STC’s Uncle Vanya, awkwardly staggering and galumphing towards a liaison (as Yelena and Astrov), and Richard Roxburgh (as Vanya, madly in love with Yelena) showed up in the doorway with a fistful of stupid roses. This was a great coming together of a generation of Australian talent inside a beautifully orchestrated rendering of a truly great play in the canon. As simple and rare as an exquisite lamington.

So – Chekhov is a great dramatist in the canon. Why? What is necessary to make a great play? Character. Dilemma (which together might be called Story). Structure (Time and Space and the integration of the fictional unfolding in real audience time). Careful layering of incidents and juxtaposition of circumstance. Rhythm? Which extends from
character and plot dynamics, through character epiphanies and revelations for the audience, right down to orchestrated entrances and exits.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett © Lisa Tomasetti

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In other words, you have a place and you have some people. They have a history, which has brought them to this point. They encounter each other (in the wrong or right order depending on the comedy or the tragedy of the events, and depending on one’s perspective). The various characters’ plights are moved from A to B in front of the audience’s eyes, in the time that we share and within the real geography that keeps us here, now. So, the setting may be Elsinore in the 1400s but the event we are witnessing is here and now. And that tension must be held inside the production as a real and living point of reference for the play. Theatre – when it works – is a meniscus between this world and the next.

People say it’s Story. It’s Character. It’s universal. It’s insight. Finally, I think all that is too general and takes too much for granted. What it is, is the integration of our emotion and our thoughts with another (or others). All this inside a very special time and place that is nowhere, but is in dialogue with the conditions we understand of living here and now. This does not necessarily (but might) include the presence of mobile phones or AK47s. Theatre is the music of reality, orchestrated and composed, scored in time and space, then witnessed through the lens of that meniscus created by the surface tension of each particular production. It’s a wonderfully dense concoction that looks as easy as a lamington to make.

Sigh. Lamingtons – always good, rarely great.

Anyway... personally? What I love about Chekhov is the presence of a musician; he is a great composer. The chance to adapt his work is the chance to begin the interpretation which will come to fruition in the production. In the case of Platonov it is also the chance to finish the score. And give it a name.

"The other thing about Platonov – or The Present – is that it has the most spectacular backstory that Chekhov (or anyone) has yet come up with"

The other thing about Platonov – or The Present as we are calling it for now – is that it has the most spectacular backstory, I think, that Chekhov (or anyone for that matter) has yet come up with. Backstory is the coal engine that drives the steam train that is Naturalism... but I will get to Naturalism later.

To the backstory at hand: 20 years before the play begins, an aging general took a beautiful young wife. It was his second wife. He already had a son by his first marriage. When his young (let’s say 20-year-old) wife came to the family home his son was, say, 17. His son had a friend. They both had a tutor – the occasionally titular Platonov. Let’s say he was 22 when she appeared. Now she was not a gold digger, but she certainly knew what side her bread was buttered on. But she is complex: she has a passionate heart, a stirring spirit, an independent streak – and she likes her creature comforts. In the backstory she is young, free, open to life and beautiful. Consequently she explodes into the life of these two boys and one young man, and the summers are long – to say the least.

Anyway, time passes, the General is dead (five, ten years ago?). The world of the backstory has split apart and we come together 20 years later, on her 40th birthday. It is a select group of friends she has invited to the old country house where those long summers had run their complicated, emotionally-fraught course. To make matters worse, she is just starting to lose control of her much-prized independence – the General’s estate has declined, other old and powerful friends of the great man are circling the estate and the trophy wife/mistress tied to it. And that is the party to which Chekhov invites us.

I have updated the setting to Russia just post-Perestroika and at the rise of the oligarchs because there seems to be interesting parallels as the older generation reinvent themselves from commissars to oligarchs and still sideline the (now middle-aged) boys beneath them. It is a story about one generation dominating another, about how relationships grow inside you even when you are no longer in them, about love and about the great disappointments we live through. There is a bit of Hamlet in all that of course, and a lot of Chekhovian missing and colliding.

So, to Naturalism... What is Naturalism? A slice of life. Politically charged in its day, it put the common man centre stage and talked about the conditions of life as it was. Thematically driven character studies that reveal human nature. A rising movement at the birth of photography, it came into its own dramatically with the birth of film. As a theatrical movement it is (with the wisdom of hindsight) drama grappling with photographic reality (the factory floor being the best setting for examining the nuts and bolts of life).

Toby Schmitz, Richard Roxburgh and Chris Ryan © Lisa Tomasetti

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Naturalism is also a label, a diminution with which Chekhov is heavily associated. But like Samuel Beckett and his albatross Absurd label, these writers are so much greater than the movements they are thoughtlessly associated with. A movement is a digestion of a work. If we view the works through the movement we are eating pre-chewed food.

So what is Chekhov in relation to that label? Well, yes, it describes the appearance of his plays. But it does not capture the great flowing force of them. The historical context (and radical power) of Naturalism and the stylistic drivers are long gone, but Chekhov (perhaps on his own? Time will tell...) remains independent of the history and the time because there is, inside the viewpoint, an inherent surface tension between the inner and the outer. This surface tension exists because Chekhov is not merely telling a story about people, but is in fact writing four-dimensional music set to the rhythms of life.

And why do we keep coming back to him? The thematics? Yes. The characters? Yes. The searing insights? Yes. But most of all it is the musicianship. What a composer. And as with any great composer, the players become transformed by his score and the audience are transported.

The Present, also known as Platonov or The Don Juan of the Volga. Sometimes called The Disinherited. Wild Honey. Perhaps even, A Dane in The Ukraine (Again).

Who knows? At Sydney Theatre Company we hope to find out – but only for now.

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett head Sydney Theatre Company’s cast of The Present, directed by John Crowley. It opens on Broadway January 8

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