REVIEW: Young Chekhov Season, Chichester Festival Theatre, until November 14.

THE SEAGULL by Chekhov , Writer - Anton Chekhov, Director - Mathew Dunster, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/ SUS-151014-112738003
THE SEAGULL by Chekhov , Writer - Anton Chekhov, Director - Mathew Dunster, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/ SUS-151014-112738003

There’s no doubting Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young Chekhov is a magnificent achievement, three early Chekhovs delivered by one company with freshness and vigour in new versions by David Hare, directed by Jonathan Kent.

There’s every reason to doubt whether watching them one after the other in a day-long extravaganza serves any of them terribly well.

With the best will in the world, Chekhov fatigue starts to set in as we start to wait for the gun shot which ends each one. Chekhov’s world of debtors, creditors, landowners, mopers, depressives, the bored and the unfulfilled is one to dip into sparingly; if not, returns diminish and the characters start to seem fairly interchangeable between the three plays.

The day’s surprise package is also the day’s highlight, Platonov, reconstructed here to great effect from the assorted hours which Chekhov might have included. The result, thanks to James McArdle’s central performance, is as delightful as it is thought-provoking, the tale of an incorrigible womaniser incapable of taking the slightest responsibility for any of the repercussions of his weakness. In fact, he’s indignant and disbelieving at all the trauma he causes.

It’s a measure of McArdle’s performance that he makes the man so wonderfully charismatic. His comic timing is perfect in the day’s outstanding performance.

Samuel West shows equal and considerable skill in his portrayal of Ivanov, but has the harder time. It’s difficult not to be left cold by the man, a complete misery - and presumably the reason running clubs and electric guitars were invented for men of a certain age. Ivanov clearly just needs to get out a bit more; his tragedy is that he can’t, but that’s not to say he’s going to inspire terribly much sympathy.

The play scores, however, in its portrayal of all the social sillinesses of the time. The comedy is rich and winning.

As for The Seagull, it’s probably the day’s disappointment. The academics love to tell us how clever the ideas are in Chekhov’s play about actresses, writers and a dead bird, but sitting in front of it is quite another matter.

This production is stylish, imaginatively delivered and beautifully acted, but the play itself still ought to have “do not resuscitate” scrawled across it. A group of people variously get awfully uptight, but The Seagull is about as likely to soar as Monty Python’s dead parrot. The CFT probably did manage to put four million volts through it, but it definitely didn’t voom.

Maybe it would be better if watched in isolation.

But the three-in-a-day approach was certainly a fascinating insight into the acting skills on display, McArdle in particular strikingly different as he moved from play one to two.

Nina Sosanya was also a revelation, terrific in strikingly-different ways in Platonov and Ivanov; the finest company performance, however, came from Olivia Vinall in all three, most definitely a young actress to watch, superb in each, natural and supremely gifted.

As a footnote, though, spare a thought for poor Chekhov, a playwright who’s always attracted more than his fair share of nonsense. The programme tells us “Chekhov’s characters forget to be Chekhov’s characters.” Eh? No writer ever deserves to be on the wrong end of pretentious tosh like that.

Phil Hewitt

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