Two courses of what you fancy can be just right. Three courses on the same day can lead to indigestion and exhaustion, however excellent the chef. So I decided to postpone enjoying The Seagull, the last dish in Jonathan Kent's Young Chekhov menu until a week later, and concentrate on the first two parts of the trilogy.
I had several very personal reasons for looking forward to Chekhov's early plays Platonov and Ivanov at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Firstly, Chichester in its 1960s heyday gave me my first heady experience of seeing professional theatre, and my first experience of Chekhov, just as I began studying Russian for A-level. In 1966 I was taken by my parents to see a famous production by Lindsay Anderson of The Cherry Orchard, with Celia Johnson as Ranevskaya, leading a cast that included Ray McAnally, Bill Fraser, Tom Courtenay, John Laurie and Sarah Badel. In the non-speaking roles there was a certain Ben Kingsley and a young actor named Peter Egan.
(Egan, who has appeared in just about every play in every theatre one can think of since 1966, is back on the same Chichester stage in all three Chekhov plays in 2015, and he's a delight to watch.)
My second reason for anticipating Kent's production was sheer curiosity. While I know Chekhov's four great plays pretty well and have seen all of them many times, before last Saturday I had never read or seen Platonov before, and had seen Ivanov only twice.
Finally I was keen to see if the actors had benefited from my own very small long-range contribution to the production, a guide to pronouncing the Russian names of the characters.
Platonov, a baggy monster of a play which was never performed in Chekhov's lifetime, has been expertly knocked into shape by David Hare, and it's endlessly fascinating as a precursor, written in the 1880s, of the mature plays that followed 20 years later. Chekhov may only have been a medical student when he wrote it, but as an author of short stories, he already had the gift of shaping memorable characters and sparkling dialogue. There's a dodgy doctor, an aristocratic widow whose debts are going to force her to sell her estate, and a rising businessman of humble origins who may buy it. There's a naive young woman throwing herself at an unsuitable older man, and more than one ill-matched couple who both know deep down that they should never have got married. He also throws in Osip the horse thief, a social outsider, but this invention doesn't quite work as a device to keep the plot moving.
Kent's direction and Hare's writing, helped by strong performances from the cast, successfully mask the weak points in the story of Platonov, a no-good provincial schoolteacher who just happens to be irresistible to women. James McArdle (who played James I in first part of Rhona Munro's history trilogy for the National Theatre of Scotland) gives Platonov just enough self-awareness to make him almost sympathetic compared to the women he betrays, all of whom seem incapable of seeing him as he is. Chekhov's characters span a broad spectrum of self-knowledge, from those who are very self-aware to those who lack all sense of self-awareness. 'You do love me, or you wouldn't have kissed me!' exclaims one of Platonov's female victims. 'Smoke me like a cigarette and throw me away!' says another. 'I don't want to be happy -- I want to be with you!' she says.
This is Russia in 1881, long predating the social break-up and political fragility that overtook Russia under Nicholas II. There's less sense of a society in turmoil, and more of the eternal Russia, where people drink too much vodka and, as one character laments, 'The distances are very great'. Trapped far away in the provinces, these minor gentry have only each other to talk to, and the results are often disappointing. Platonov, despite his faults, is at least more interesting than the other men on the horizon. As the deserted husband of one woman complains: 'You don't need her, you have lots of women. I have only one.'
Olivia Vinall, who like Egan is appearing in all three plays, is excellent as young Sofya, who abandons her drippy husband (Pip Carter) to run off into the sunset with the useless Platonov. But rather than a calculating seducer, man she is pursuing is endlessly weak and incapable of making a decision. Not for nothing is he described as the local Hamlet.
Like many apprentice playwrights, Chekhov doesn't quite manage to organise his many characters into a coherent plot, but the play contains some very funny scenes and comes to a climax with a melodramatic gunshot on stage. In his mature plays Chekhov learned that violence can be even more effective if it takes place offstage, or is purely psychological and doesn't involve guns at all.
Ivanov is dramatically less satisfying than Platonov, but that is no fault of the production, or of Samuel West's performance in the title role. When I saw this in the West End in 2008 with Kenneth Branagh, I found it an unsatisfactory play about a man suffering from severe clinical depression. Ivanov's depression is so severe that he cannot interact properly with anyone; neither his estate manager, his unloved Jewish wife, the young woman who loves him (Olivia Vinall again on top form), or his friends and neighbours. Drama flows from the interaction between characters and the contrast between elation and despair, but Ivanov just sits alone in his own deep pool of misery, without much real development. It was not a mistake that the playwright was to make in his mature plays, and Ivanov is not a precursor of any of his later characters.
Chekhov's later progression into maturity also led him to abandon the extensive use of soliloquies to the audience by characters who are alone on stage. Moving towards a more naturalistic style in which the fourth wall between audience and actors remains intact was a change of style that fitted a wider change in the theatre from the 19th to the 20th century. While the main character isn't dramatically interesting, the other protagonists are very strongly written. James McArdle takes the role of Lvov, the priggish doctor who keeps trying to put Ivanov back on the path to virtue but is incapable of treating his illness. This is a role in which Tom Hiddleston, then largely unknown, made his mark opposite Branagh in Michael Grandage's production.
To judge by the first two parts of the trilogy, Chichester's Chekhov binge under Jonathan Kent is a great success. It plugs embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of his work while keeping the audience richly entertained. Chichester's theatregoers are a faithful crowd, and I suspect I wasn't the only one on Saturday who saw Peter Egan on the famous thrust stage back in 1966. As one of the characters exclaims in Platonov: 'The old days...they didn't just seem better. They WERE better.'