REVIEW: Young Chekhov Trilogy (National Theatre) ★★★★★

young chekhov

The Young Chekhov is a trilogy of Anton Chekhov’s earliest plays, comprising Platonov (1880) which was written when he was only twenty years old, Ivanov (1887) and The Seagull (1896), performed at the Olivier Theatre on London’s Southbank. These plays are new versions, adapted by the brilliant David Hare, which were originally performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year. The trilogy perfectly documents the early creative development of one of the worlds greatest playwrights. The stories all reflect a particular time and class of Russian aristocratic people of diminished means trying to hang on to their way of life.

The cast are a group of some of the finest stage and screen actors in Britain – the elegant and urbane Peter Egan, the wonderfully mesmerising Nina Sosanya, and the haughty, elegant, Anna Chancellor. Wonderful.

I also highly commend the delectable Olivia Vinall, who has major parts in all three plays, surely qualifying her for a theatrical marathon award. In the first two she is the ingenue, pushed and pulled helplessly on the tide of other’s emotional whims. In The Seagull, she finally breaks away and becomes independent but with tragic consequences. While each is a different person, Sofya, Sasha and Nina, it is easy to look upon them as a single character who naturally develops throughout the stories and, in The Seagull, manages to begin to live life on her own terms, perhaps shadowing Chekhov’s own emotional development.

Platonov, Chekhov’s first play, concerns every man’s dream of being the object of desire to a number of wonderful, beautiful women. Unfortunately one of his admirers, and not the one he would have chosen, is his wife with whom he has a child and, to his credit, feels a grudging responsibility for.

Despite the seriousness of the story, Platonov is is very funny and fully exploits the comic potential of the situation.

Ivanov, Chekhov’s second play, concerns 35 year old government official Nikolai Ivanov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) who, at his comparatively young age feels that he has thrown his life away. Ivanov is informed by Dr Lvov (James McArdle) that Ivanov’s wife Anna (again the lovely Nina Sosanya) is dying of Tuberculosis and needs a trip to the Crimea to recuperate, but Ivanov refuses or perhaps can’t afford to pay for the treatment.

Ivanov is an egocentric jerk without empathy for others. His character has no humour and is totally self obsessed. He even refuses to spend a single evening with his dying wife when she needs him, telling her “well you are dying anyway”, to gasps from the audience.

This second play is much darker and more serious than Platonov.

The Seagull is a comic tragedy, which opens in a temporary theatre by a lake. A play is performed, written by Konstantin (Joshua James), the young son of the famous actress Irena (Anna Chancellor). Most characters are rather condescending about the hopelessly juvenile play, and Konstantin is hurt, and acts more than a little childish about it.

Konstantin loves Nina, heiress to a rich landowner, who loves Trigorin (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a well known and successful writer of “popular” fiction and close friend of Irena. This is a double slap in the face to the rather pretentious, immature Konstantin who feels that his play is high art.

Konstantin, in one of the least considered but most famous acts of love in literature, gives Nina a dead seagull which he has shot, which understandably mystifies Nina, all building up to a climactic end.

Many of the cast appear in more than one of the three plays, playing different characters seamlessly. As a piece of theatrical history it is unparalleled. I feel proud to have been there. I would advise anyone to beg, steel, borrow or preferably buy tickets for this outstanding event.

Reviewed by Graham Archer

THE YOUNG CHEKHOV TRILOGY plays on various dates until October. Tickets can be purchased for the shows individually or for all three shows combined. Full details here