BBC Radio 4, 26 January 2010
In the sleeve-notes to a recording to Chekhov's short stories, Stephen
Fry claims that Chekhov's short stories "mark the high water of his
genius (....) These tales appear to be about nothing (....) But if you let character, observation and language do their
work in your mind - hope you will agree with me that no writer captured, mood, moral entanglement, familial love and the pains
and joys of humanity quite as well and with quite so much painterly detail, sympathy and fellow-feeling."
Forget the hyperbole: on the evidence of Philip Franks' and Jane Morgan's dramatization
of "Man in a Case," Chekhov's short stories are first and foremost highly entertaining pieces. Introduced by Chekhov
himself (Michael Pennington), this story concerned Belikov (Jasper Britton), a Mr. Chips-style school teacher with an
obsessive concern for rules and regulations. Hated by his students, he spent much of his life in splendid isolation,
unable to talk to anyone. His torment increased, once the young idealistic teacher Kovidenko (Nicholas Boulton) came to work
at the school; unlike Belikov, Kovidenko showed scant concern for rules and regulations.
While Belikov was obviously presented as a figure of ridicule, Chekhov refuses to
judge him; as the story unfolded, we discovered he had a secret passion for Varenka (Zoe Waites). When he tried to declare
it, she rebuffed him with withering contempt. With nothing else to live for, Belikov retired from public life altogether,
and died alone in an empty apartment. Everyone at the school was happy to see him go, but, in a clever twist to the tale,
we also learned that Belikov himself was happy to die in a cocooned space (in other words, his room). Most of his previous
struggles in life had been occasioned by shyness; he hated to associate with other people. Dying alone represented
the fulfillment of his limited aspirations.
"Man in a Case" showed Chekhov at his best, refusing to judge people
but rather taking care to emphasize the contradictoriness of their lives. All is not what it seemed with Belikov, either
in life or death.