Anton Chekhov - Seven and a Half Years

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BBC Radio 3, 24 January 2010
Presented by Susannah Clapp, Seven and a Half Years focused on the origins of Chekhov's Three Sisters. Illustrated with comments from Sasha Dugdale (the translator of The Cherry Orchard, broadcast on Radio 3 last year, and author of a new version of The Three Sisters), plus specially commissioned extracts from her work, this programme emphasized Chekhov's skills as a writer of plays which were neither wistful nor bourgeois, but naturalistic in the sense of trying to show life as it is - contradictory, paradoxical yet compelling. In many ways the sound of his words is as important as sense; like Shakespeare, he creates a kind of verbal music in the original Russian which is very difficult for translators to recreate. By contrast the actors in the Moscow Art Theatre have always known how to perform Chekhov, with each line of dialogue overlapping one another creating a kind of polyphony.
Seven and a Half Years also emphasized the differences of tradition separating Great Britain and Russia. Chekhov's naturalism was not the pictorial naturalism associated with the Victorian stage; and therefore he became particularly difficult to perform. The first UK staging of The Cherry Orchard was in 1911, six years after its debut at the Moscow Art Theatre. Like the productions of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya that followed soon after, it was a worthy attempt at engaging with this new Russian voice, but it failed in one crucial respect. It didn't get Chekhov's sense of humour. Things only improved in 1925 when a production of The Cherry Orchard reached London via Oxford. There were still those who found it "dull, stupid stuff" and saw "no reason why this fatuous drivel should be translated at all". They were not typical, however, and there were enough people calling it "flawless" and a "masterpiece" for the production to transfer to a second London theatre and enjoy a run throughout that summer. "Once we knew we were allowed to laugh, of course, everything fell into place and took on meaning," recalled the Daily Telegraph critic WA Darlington.

However Seven and a Half Years still emphasized the fact that British Chekhov productions often overlooked two things: first, that his characters often cannot live in the present, and either look forward to the future or reminisce about the past. Their inability to adjust to circumstances is not something to be faulted; on the contrary, this might be part of Chekhov's radicalism as a dramatist. In his work the concepts of beginning, middle and end do not matter; what is more important is the notion of unfinished business, both thematically and structurally. Secondly, the programme stressed that British actors should follow the example of the Moscow Art Theatre and perform Chekhov not as a work in which one character speaks, followed by another, but rather allowing the characters to speak in a series of overlapping tones, or even overlapping voices. The producer of this entertaining programme was Beaty Rubens.