FROM BRITAIN WITH LOVE

When Chekhov's `Ivanov' played at the Almeida in London, people camped out all night in the hope of a ticket. But how would the production go down in Moscow? Company member Oliver Ford Davies kept a diary of the trip
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TUESDAY 22 April: This is colossal cheek. The Almeida production of Ivanov is the first British Chekhov to play in Moscow in English. "Haven't they got enough Chekhov in Russia?" Islington sceptics drawl. Certainly, but our excuse is that Ivanov, his first performed play, is less well known than the big four.

Nevertheless it takes nerve. Ivanov is sometimes called the Russian Hamlet. We're conscious that David Hare's adaptation and Jonathan Kent's production have tried to make passive characteristics active. Often, the words "boring" and "boredom" have been cut from the text; "melancholy" has become "anguish". We play it at a furious pace. The comedy is done broadly, almost farcically. In London people dubbed it "very Russian - Moscow will love it". But is it? And will they?

Security is slight at Moscow airport. We drive in past miles of stark new 20-storey apartment blocks. As we near the city centre we see a sign of change - the latest Calvin Klein men's underwear posters hanging from lamposts. The newly restored gold onion domes of small churches glow behind them. We see huge placards proclaiming 1997 as the 850th anniversary of the founding of Moscow. Everywhere there seems to be a building site, as Moscow constructs underground car parks and shopping malls for the September deadline. By Theatre Square and the Bolshoi a banner bestrides the eight-lane street, and even we can read Almeida and Ivanov in Cyrillic script. Thrilling and daunting - a state familiar to actors. It's why the British Council under Tony Andrews have invested so much in us - we are the first highlight of the British contribution to the festivities. Culture is part of diplomacy, part of business.

Our hotel, built in 1912 style moderne, has been immaculately restored. We rush to see the Maly Theatre. The stage is huge, with four great dusty bells hanging 60 feet up at the back. The 1,000-seater auditorium is very 1840 - unraked stalls, three circles of boxes set very far back, and Stalin's stage box with bullet-proof curtains. The acoustic is tremendous (well, naturally, for its era). At the Almeida we have two dressing rooms, and six actors overflow into the wardrobe. Here we have over 100 rooms to choose from, but we've already decided to stick to our huddled groups. This baffles the Maly. Reluctantly they allow us to at least pair off. I alone have a room to myself. Kevin Fitzmaurice, our stage manager, explains this is because no one will share with me. This is typical theatre joke. I think. Anyway, it's beautiful, with a view out to the Bolshoi and a huge, intricately carved mirror. Perhaps I can stand the loneliness after all ...

Ralph Fiennes goes off to introduce a screening of The English Patient. He gives his speech in Russian, and is applauded every third word. Whether it's because he's a film star, or attempting Russian, or has simply turned up, is not clear. We all meet for a Georgian meal. Opposite the restaurant is a magical sight - the floodlit Novodevichiy Convent, domes and castellations gleaming.

WEDNESDAY: A difficult day. We've all slept badly. The set isn't ready. Our crew work 48 hours, with five hours sleep. We have a word run on the great sofas of the green room. These can be speed gabbles, but this is a concentrated, urgent playing of intentions - very thrilling. When Anna (Harriet Walter) asks Count Shabielski where he'd go if he won the lottery and I reply "Moscow", everyone cheers, and the frightening reality of being here finally sinks in.

We scramble through the technical, nerves frayed, then dress-rehearse in front of 300 drama students. It's a very difficult performance. We can't gauge our projection in a house six times the size of the Almeida. Few of the students understand much English and we lose 90 per cent of the laughs. As audiences, drama students are notorious. They usually come to scoff - well, my generation did. We then have a question and answer session. Of course the students are polite, but it emerges that they find our acting too energised. One person uses the word "hysterical". They are clearly used to melancholic, reflective Chekhov. It confirms my suspicions.

Tell a British (or American) audience that you are sad and life is boring, and they think, "and so is this play, and I'm missing ER". Tell a Russian audience, and they think, "absolutely right - this is the human condition". There's a question about the anti-semitism in the play, and Ralph answers by talking passionately and eloquently about the possibility of evil in all of us. Then a young woman speaks of how, though she didn't understand the language, she became gripped by the human emotions and dilemma on stage. It transcends all barriers. The audience applaud frantically. We applaud even more frantically. Honour is saved. But doubts remain.

THURSDAY: A better day. I sleep until 10.30. We have a press call at noon, with more than 100 journalists present. Of course most want to ask Ralph if he prefers stage to screen, is Ivanov the Russian Hamlet, etc, etc. Towards the end a woman asks, "Aren't you tired of all this about the Russian soul? If you were doing Ibsen would you worry so much about the Norwegian soul?" Good question.

Some sightseeing to take our minds off opening night. Lenin's tomb shuts at 1pm - I suspect they're trying to keep visits down. We visit St Basil's, buy painted eggs and boxes in Gum, now an international mall full of Benettons. We are shown round the Moscow Arts Theatre, and see Stanislavsky's dressing room. The neat, sober wig on his table is for Shabielski, my part. This is an unexpected treat, but disconcerting. I'm playing the part quite differently. We meet an English actor, studying at the school, and he confirms that the students are confused by our style. They don't feel we can be "inhabiting the roles" - the great cry of Stanislavskian naturalism. We open in three hours. Enough time to reinhabit Shabielski?

We start the play, determined to play with one another, be truthful and enjoy ourselves. This is the happiest, most generous, least tortured group of actors I have worked with. The first half is sticky. The audience is unsure, despite being 40 per cent English-speaking. Tickets originally priced at $30 have been changing hands for $200. Is this London fringe theatre, where actors rehearse for only four weeks and are paid pounds 200 a week, going to be worth it?

Laughs are coming. My scene with Tony O'Donnell and Diane Bull (pure Feydeau farce) gets a round. But the real test comes after the interval, in the great sequence of dualogues in Act III. Ralph, Harriet, Tony, Bill Paterson, Colin Tierney, Justine Waddell are superb, completely concentrated, letting the extremes of emotion flow in the big theatre. The audience are fixated. This is their Chekhov - a man proclaiming the shame of human existence.

Great applause and cheers at the end, many curtain calls, flowers for everyone. My main feeling is one of relief. A Maly actor who played Borkin in 1961 comes round to congratulate us and tells me I am far too sloppily dressed for a Russian count. I tell him English earls pride themselves on being sloppily dressed. He is not impressed - "No, no, your tie must be done up." I bet Stanislavsky's was.

We go in a group to a lavish reception by AT&T, our sponsors, and compliments flow. Lena Krishtoff, out wonderful British Council interpreter, tells me her father hated Chekhov - too depressing. "This is Chekhov for Chekhov haters," she says. A Russian says: "You can't cross the barrier; we like our Gogol funny and our Chekhov sad." Another says: "How good to see the great Shakespearean emotions brought to bear on Chekhov." We end up back in our hotel bar singing Beatles songs. I guiltily retire at about three to write up this diary. Ah, the sacrifices we hacks make.

FRIDAY: The Moscow Times says, "Fiennes Takes Moscow", but we're not clear what's meant. More sightseeing - back to the convent to see the cemetery where so many artists are buried, from Bulgakov to Shostakovitch. We stand by Chekhov's grave. Intimate and unpretentious. Then off to its opposite, the Kremlin.

The performance is a little second-nighty. David Hare has arrived, and reports that two Russian directors think we are very radical. Largely, David gleans, because we dare to wave our arms about. It's good to feel radical.

The British ambassador, Sir Andrew Wood, throws a splendid party for us. I am to reply on behalf of the Almeida, and preparing the speech has added to the nerves of the past two days. Must thank everybody. Must stay diplomatic, must be funny, must allow a personal note. It goes well, and the company are very supportive, (ie they laugh at anything). The European Union ambassador is especially keen on my plea to tour more Russian Shakespeare, French Schiller, German Moliere (well, I did get a bit carried away).

SATURDAY: Up early for the drive to Melikhovo, where Chekhov lived in the 1890s. On the coach journey, I do an interview for a Channel 4 documentary, which has been following us everywhere. Harriet and Justine have talked to the Moscow Arts Theatre school and found what the students liked was the lack of directorial concept and the power handed back to the actors (hurrah for Jonathan). Their conclusion is that good acting is good acting.

The visit proves to be extraordinarily moving. As we look round, and see the desk with his little elephant and Buddha and sea shell, where he wrote The Seagull and Uncle Vanya and many of his greatest stories, I am choked with emotion. Why does this house communicate so much when others convey so little? Is it because we've come so far, or that Chekhov was so emphatic a person, or simply that his work means so much to me? Does it matter? We are given lunch, toasts are drunk, speeches are made - by Harriet in Russian, by me in English. The hot cabbage is especially delicious.

Last night. The reception is stunning, even to an old sceptic like me. A standing ovation for minutes on end. We applaud the audience back. I am handed red carnations which I resolve to take back to London (I do and four have survived). There is a note attached. "To Ralph, with love Natasha. Come back soon." Ah well, can't have everything.

SUNDAY: On the plane home I read a Chekhov story, "Ariadne". A character says: "A Russian actor will never play the fool. Even in a comedy he wants to express his soul." Perhaps Chekhov too had problems with the Russian theatre.

ROLES TO NEWCASTLE

The Almeida's Ivanov was not the first British production of a foreign play to tour to its country of origin. Daniel Rosenthal gathers the recollections of earlier pioneers

SIR PETER HALL has directed three National Theatre productions of Greek plays in the ancient, 12,000-seat auditoria at Herodias Atticus, in Athens, and Epidaurus: Aeschylus's Oresteia Trilogy in 1982, Aristophanes' Lysistrata in 1984, and Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus in 1996.

"YOU can't really say we were in the plays' country of origin since Ancient Greece no longer exists and Ancient Greek is a dead language. Nonetheless, the Greeks were very proud to see that we still found meaning in their cultural heritage. The audience responses were among the best I've encountered anywhere in the world and the reviews were fantastic. Our use of masks was what really shook them, because we were bringing the play back to the ritualistic style which is not used in most contemporary Greek productions of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes. The huge audiences made it feel more like a very exciting football match than a theatre event. I remember standing beside the stage at Herodias Atticus with a young actor who was about to go on at the start of Lysistrata. We listened to this tremendous, expectant roar from 12,000 people, and he said: `Can we record this so I can play it back to myself when I'm out of work.' "

In 1990, the Royal Shakespeare Company took Les Liaisons Dangereuses to the Theatre du Rond-Point in Paris. It had been adapted by CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON from the 1782 French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

"A French translation of Liaisons had run for six months in Paris a couple of years earlier, and Stephen Frears's version had won the Cesar for Best Foreign Film in 1988. So by 1990 Paris audiences were much more interested in the play than they would have been had it come `cold' from London. At the end - unlike in the novel - the Marquise de Merteuil escapes ruin, and I had been frightened abut how the French might react to an Englishman messing abut with one of their classics. But they gave the RSC an excellent reception - very cool and Parisian. There was no simultaneous translation and at the performance I attended I could tell by the number of laughs that the audience weren't quite catching on to all of the dialogue. There was a certain amount of bemused whispering in the stalls."

Theatre de Complicite travelled to Wroclaw, Poland, in 1993, with The Street of Crocodiles, their dramatisation of the wartime short stories of Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew murdered by the Nazis. JOHN MACKINNON was their sound operator.

"My most vivid memory is of all the huge billboards above the theatre advertising Ulica Crocodilia. Seeing the title in Schulz's native language was really touching. Some Poles showed a somewhat naive surprise that we should be interested in Schulz, saying things like `You mean English companies don't just do Shakespeare?' But they took our interest as a compliment and loved the show. The language barrier was not really a problem, because, as with a lot of Complicite's work, so much of the story was told visually that a deaf person would have understood what was going on."

Declan Donnellan's production of Fuente- ovejuna, the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega's 1612 tale of a peasant revolt, travelled to Seville in 1992 after a sell-out run at the National. JANE GIBSON was its director of movement.

"There was a lot of dance in the play and I was very conscious that English actors' bodies are completely different from Spanish bodies, which have this tremendous energy and athleticism. It must have been amazing for Spaniards to see us attempting Flamenco, which is in their blood; but I wasn't anxious that it would look inauthentic. I think they warmed to the way we were all putting an outsider's spin on the play. Spaniards regard Lope de Vega as perhaps their greatest playwright, but there was no suggestion that we did not have the right to tackle him. I think they were flattered in the same way we are flattered when a Japanese company comes here with Macbeth."

OUR MAN IN MOSCOW

Oliver Ford Davies acted with Michael York, Ken Loach and Caryl Churchill

at Oxford in the late 1950s, before becoming a lecturer in history at Edinburgh. He did not join the professional stage until 1967, when he was 27. He has been a member of the RSC and the National Theatre, and won a Best Actor Olivier Award for Racing Demon in 1990. Ivanov was his first appearance in a Chekhov play

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