Doctor's dilemma

From Barcelona to Belfast, Hereford to Haifa, Michael Pennington has toured the world as Anton Chekhov - in a one-man show that began, appropriately enough, on the Trans-Siberian Express. Here he recounts his long relationship with a writer he calls his `companion in life, murmuring in one's ear'
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The Independent Culture
My notion of doing a show about the life of Anton Chekhov grew out of a conversation on the Trans-Siberian Express with an American poet and Zennist, which was certainly a good start. I was rolling home from Japan in 1975, paying off a 15-year interest in Russia and things Russian that had amounted to a mild, sweet obsession. I suppose it lay somewhere between sentimentality and deep curiosity, but I did want to see what Irkutsk - that Siberian terminus for old Russia's political exiles - was really like, and get an idea of the vastnesses across which those provincial sisters once dreamt of Moscow, Moscow. I was billeted in a two-berth compartment with Lucien Stryk, because that was the way the Soviets ordered these things, even down to such small details; the reasonable assumption being that he and the English actor might be trusted to talk the hind legs off each other rather than wander through the train embarrassing citizens with unanswerable questions.

Three days later, Lucien asked me if I realised that Chekhov, already tubercular, had once made the terrible reverse journey to ours to conduct a survey of prison conditions on the island of Sakhalin, off the Pacific Coast. The news you might say, did me in. Chekhov's scandalised report on Sakhalin has now taken its place in the translated canon, but it was unknown in English then, and although I knew in a general way that Chekhov had a conscience, I had, I'm afraid, assumed that he exercised it from his armchair. Lucien, pressing the friendly advantage, declared that I should do a one-man show on the writer, pointing out, by way of relief, that Chekhov had washed the Sakhalin experience away by coming back through Singapore, Hong Kong and the Suez Canal, buying a mongoose and indulging all his plentiful appetites. I scoffed: the subject was too difficult, the man too elusive, who needs one-man shows anyway? - poor Lucien didn't understand the problems. We parted in Moscow, Lucien promising to nag me thoroughly. He called me every year for eight years, specifically on this topic. For eight years, I mocked him: by the ninth year I'd done it.

At first I'd thought about a play for three characters: Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorky. Their correspondence, which started with a swim in the lake at Yasnaya Polyana in 1895, is a beguiling mixture of regard and bitchiness, and it was tempting to see the past, present and future of Russian literature represented by the paterfamilias, the prematurely-old humanist and the burgeoning revolutionary. But the idea soon fell foul of the deckchair- and-desk convention and I couldn't animate it. So I returned to the single and seductive voice of Chekhov. What would it have been like to meet him? What sort of humour would he be in, and what would he be prepared to talk about if you had the good fortune to capture him for an evening and put him on an intimate stage? Possibly not the theatre for which he had a healthy distrust, or his poignant relationship with Olga Knipper (his wife and leading lady). And yet... At one point, in the act of throwing the pen down more or less in despair, I was called away by Granada TV to play Chekhov in Anne Allen's A Wife Like the Moon (titled after Chekhov's famous wish to have a wife, who, like the moon, didn't appear in the sky every day). This I took for an omen. I tinkered on, confident enough at one point to allow myself to be booked for the Edinburgh Festival, and then pulling out at rather shorter notice than I should because I still couldn't get it right.

Finally, while playing a season at the National Theatre in 1984, I was asked to take the still-uncompleted show on a tour of colleges and schools and then into the Cottesloe repertoire for 30-odd performances. It was quite a gesture of faith on Peter Hall's part, and concentrated the mind wonderfully. To play it now to eight sixth-formers at 12 noon in a London classroom, now in the civic expanses of the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, now in an arts centre in Wigan, proved that trial and error was the best way of completing the job. The first night at the National was, by coincidence, very close to the 80th anniversary of Chekhov's death. I thought to myself: "80 years later, Chekhov dies again." It went well: I toured it occasionally but widely over the next couple of years - Barcelona, Dublin, Belfast, the Jerusalem Festival - still adapting to local interests where I could, but never changing Chekhov's call to "take hold of what's left of your life and save it", of his perception that "people have dinner, that's all they do, they have dinner, yet during this time their happiness is established or their lives are falling apart".

Apart from Hamlet, I've never been involved with a single script for quite so long - certainly not with one that I was allowed to change at will - and I've now re-written it quite a bit again: intriguing anticipations of Soviet life in Chekhov's world are not quite as interesting now that the USSR is no more and I've nipped them out; and, pace Chekhov himself, there may even be a little talk of the theatre. The fact that everything in the show was said or written - somewhere - by Chekhov is not so much to advertise my ingenious stitch work but so that I can't be accused of making it all up. What I have made up is the context, and I've used passages from the plays, and especially the stories, only when they seem to have a distinct autobiographical ring - which they do more often than I expected. Since this is just my own idea of what he was like, the best responses I've had are from people who feel they've now had a sort of conversation with Chekhov; the worst that can happen is that you have a different idea from mine.

Certainly, out of the most difficult of lives - a brutalised childhood, an exhausting double career as writer and doctor, a tubercular death at 44 - came not only the magnificent plays but a host of short stories, measurable social good and a human influence you can still feel. Russians regard Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy as giants but Chekhov as a friend, and it was said that in his presence everyone felt a need to be simpler, more themselves. Chekhov himself dreaded the death of Tolstoy, for he felt that, with Tolstoy alive, it was "easy and natural" to be a writer. You might say that, with Chekhov among us, it is easier to live something like a good life, one in which Chekhov's own responses - at once exuberant, tolerant and discreet - seem to seep into the characters of those who love him. Writ large, this love can turn into hagiography: it is good that his more roguish correspondence, formerly suppressed by the Soviet censors, has now come to light. I must say that the Soviets hadn't done their work so well because through Russian friends, I knew that there were many good accounts of visits to Siberian brothels, of manipulative love affairs and a lifelong obsession with lavatories (natural enough to a man with delicate physical difficulties in a barbarous age) waiting to be uncovered. Obviously, the new warts on Chekhov's face make him, to us, more rather than less fascinating a character.

It is not difficult to embrace Chekhov as a companion in life: he murmurs away in one's ear and remains, in absence, a favourite travelling companion. My father died suddenly on the afternoon of what would have been the first performance of the show: I was physically barred from a theatre in Haifa that didn't know I was coming, and the same thing happened on a Sunday in Hereford: everyone had gone home for the weekend. This is not to mention the odd venue over the years that, having had my scrupulous list of props and furniture, left me instead with a wilting aspidistra and a lectern, or failed to announce the show at all. Through these and other dilemmas, great and small, Anton Pavlovich's whimsicality, and perhaps his "incomprehensible daring ardour", have assisted greatly. Of course, I belong to a superstitious trade, and am always looking out for endorsement. In the second half of the opening night at the National, I and the audience that was closest were troubled by a furiously buzzing fly that found something about my aura irresistible. I reached the line "It's so fiendishly dull, even the flies drop dead" and, I promise you, it did so. On the same night, entering the last five minutes like some marathon runner coming into the stadium, I told Chekhov's story of the black monk, who announces his imminent approach by means of "a light breeze that blew in from the window, sending my papers to the floor". The Cottesloe is more or less a sealed room, and there had been no movement from me or, I'm glad to say, the audience. Still, a paper on the desk fluttered to the ground. So Godot may yet turn up and I live in hope

Michael Pennington's `Anton Chekhov' is on 18, 24 (mat and eve), 27 Aug and 1 Sep at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1 (0171-928 7616)