It takes fourteen minutes of exposition before the samovar arrives on stage in William Boyd's respectful tribute to Anton Chekhov at the Hampstead Theatre. Birds are tweeting, the teaglasses and the cake are on the table, and the audience feasts its eyes on a lovely wooden dacha that takes up most of the stage as the characters tell each other things they already know for the audience's benefit. There are enough birch trees to build a raft and float across the Volga, autumn leaves littering the grass, and some soulful music. All that is missing is a pickled mushroom or two. It's familiar territory for anyone who has seen Chekhov's great plays, with echoes of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard ever-present.
And that's the problem. By fashioning a Chekhovian play out of two short stories, Boyd has entered a contest he just cannot win. If Chekhov had never written any plays but stuck to prose fiction, this reverential pastiche might qualify as a creditable attempt to put the master's work on stage. But he did, and anyone who knows the plays will find themselves making comparisons to Boyd's disadvantage.
I agree that Chekhov deserves total respect in the theatre, which is why Andrew Upton's mangled version of The Cherry Orchard so annoyed me at the National Theatre. Here he gets it, but it's not enough. Boyd sticks very firmly to the right historical period, and Nina Raine's direction and Lizzie Clachan's design maintain the correct Russian atmosphere. The acting is excellent throughout, with Tamsin Greig as Varia, a spinsterish, cigarette-smoking doctor, Iain Glen as Kolya, a commitment-phobic Moscow lawyer, John Sessions as Dolzhikov, a vigorous self-made man of humble origins, and Natasha Little as Tania, the wife of a man who drinks and fritters away her family estate.
The dacha or summerhouse is just one corner of the estate which the bibulous Sergei (Alan Cox) has mortgaged to the banks. Unless Kolya can work a miracle, the banks will foreclose and the estate will be sold off. It's all very like The Cherry Orchard, with Dolzhikov as a forerunner of Lopakhin, the man who buys Ranevskaya's bankrupt estate and chops down the trees. In Boyd's play there is a sub-plot, cleverly crafted from the second of Chekhov's stories. The house-painter's mate who is up on the roof of the dacha turns out to be a middle-class architect's son who is trying to turn his back on privilege and earn an honest living with his hands. Misail (William Postlethwaite) is potentially the most interesting character in the play; his dilemma is that he is engaged to Kleopatra, the pushy daughter of Dolzhikov, who plans to install them both in the big house when he buys the property. Kleopatra is a predecessor of the vulgar Natasha who displaces the middle-class sisterhood in Three Sisters. Misail, unfortunately, can't escape from her clutches although he has fallen in love with the lovely young Natasha (Eve Ponsonby), younger sister of Tania, who in turn is in love with Kolya. Everyone, in other words, is unhappy in true Chekhovian style.
Boyd captures some aspects of Chekhov's stagecraft -- the moments where characters have happiness in sight but fail to grab it -- but not others. He can manage scenes for two or three people, but misses the rich symphony of Chekhov's big scenes, where characters float in and out of the action, talking ridiculous non-sequiturs. He lacks Chekhov's surgical skill in laying bare the characters' absurd self-delusions, opting instead to make most of them quite sympathetic. The exceptions are Dolzhikov, who remains something of a caricature where Lopakhin is a feeling human being, and the drunken Sergei, who lacks any of the feckless charm of Chekhov's failures, such as Uncle Vanya. The comedy is too gentle to be really funny, and the dialogue above all lacks subtext. When Chekhov's characters are unhappy, they generally say they are happy. Boyd's characters, unfortunately, tend to just say they are unhappy. It's all too much 'on the nose'.
In terms of pace and dramatic action, the play struggles to get out of second gear. The first act climaxes with one character hitting another in the face, but this incident has no real consequences in the second act or on the outcome of the play. The loss of the estate, as in the Cherry Orchard, happens off stage, but whereas Chekhov generates real tension, leading up to Lophakhin's arrival, here it is an entirely predictable non-event. At the end, Kolya hides in the shrubbery to reject the advances of the lovesick young Natasha. This could be a really Chekhovian scene of borderline farce, but Boyd lacks the ruthlessness of Chekhov in making his characters ridiculous; instead we are just asked to sympathise with them, and it's not enough.
If it hadn't been for the fact that I was unable to rent or buy a dacha in Russia in the 1980s, I might well have stayed there longer. The Hampstead Theatre's dacha is beautiful and If my garden was big enough, I would put in a bid for it at the end of the run. But this summer house (which might have furnished a better title for the play) never acquires the emotional resonance of Chekhov's off-stage orchard as a symbol of a way of life being destroyed. Despite the long exposition at the beginning, it's unclear (at least it was to me) how Kolya is connected to Varia, Tania and Natasha. I initially assumed he was their brother, and they were three sisters. I think I was mistaken in both cases, but even at the end of the play I was still a bit in the dark about the backstory and the family circumstances. Chekhov, by contrast, is always pin-sharp in his exposition of who is linked to whom and their mutual dependencies.
This is the sort of play that is pleasant enough to fill the stalls on a damp afternoon in the West End or at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, where nothing too challenging is expected. It's an interesting experiment in fan fiction. But it left me impatient to get back to the real thing. Nina Raine is obviously an excellent director, and if she gets to work on a real Chekhov play, I will be first in the queue for a ticket.
One pedantic point: if you are unfortunate enough to share a first name with the Russian president, you will know that the stress on Vladimir falls not on the first syllable but the second. For guidance, see my ever-popular guide to pronouncing Chekhov's names.
Last night's performance was disrupted by three un-Chekhovian mobile phones going off. If theatres don't like playing a recorded announcement reminding audiences to switch off, they should display notices or, even better, get the ushers to give a verbal reminder. That seems to work at the Donmar and I think Hampstead Theatre could usefully follow suit.