Adaptor Miles Malleson
Director: Jonathan Bank and Jane Shaw
Reviewer: Maggie McMuffin
It is common enough for theatre companies to dig up the classics in an attempt to say something about the present. It is rarer for them to let the text simply speak for itself and make that message clear.
Chekhov/Tolstoy is two plays in one. The first is ‘The Artist’ adapted from Chekhov’s short story “An Artist’s Story”. The second is ‘Michael’, adapted from Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By”. Both tales deal with people (first wealthy, then poor) questioning how best to treat their fellow man. In ‘The Artist,’ this comes to a head with an impassioned argument between Nicov and Lidia who cannot agree on if it is better to work within social structures to better the lives of the oppressed or to burn down the whole system and start fresh. ‘Michael’ is more of a parable. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the titular character, at one point described as glowing from within, winds up being an angel who imparts several lessons onto the family who takes him in.
The fact that these plays are both set in their original time period allows those lessons to shine. It is not difficult to apply the arguments to issues in today’s world while appreciating that they were also relevant in the late 19th century. Chehkov and Tolstoy were very politically minded artists and yet they are often seen as simply classics of a bygone era. To have a production that honored the views of these men without hitting the audience over the head with their messages was refreshing. It really is possible to have politically driven theatre without gimmicks and heavy handed imagery!
Since the actors are also not bogged down by modern trappings, their performances are able to be grounded. These aren’t simple mouthpieces or fairy tale characters; they are human beings attempting to live their lives, attempting to navigate their personal relationships alongside their relationship to the world around them. For some this means romantic love, for some familial duty, and for others paying attention to hungry strangers. There are a thousand ways to be good to each other and a thousand ways to be rewarded or punished for these deeds. In Chekhov/Tolstoy, the audience sees a few of those options and are sent back into the world to make whatever choices they may.
Runs until 12 February 2020 | Photo Credit: Maria Baranova