Platonov, Chekhov’s first play

Platonov was Chekhov’s first play, written when he was a medical student, and he didn’t seem to be able to finish it. His version ran to five hours, and it was turned down by the Maly Theatre. The text was discovered almost 20 years after his death, and the first performance that the world noticed was in Stockholm in 1954. The first British performance was at the Royal Court in 1960—with Rex Harrison playing Platanov. It was then that the play got its English name.

The performance we saw last night at the National Theatre was translated by David Hare. I assume that most of what we saw had its origins in Chekhov’s brain, but Hare had done much more than translate the text. It was hard to know what was Chekhov and what Hare.

The staging was full of fun and energy, feeling, as Lin said, like pantomime at times. Platonov is a witty, anarchic, contradictory, drunken, and lovable schoolteacher. It wasn’t entirely convincing, however, that four women (his wife, a former lover now married to somebody else, the young widow of a general, and a humourless scientist) all loved him to the point of being willing to give up all for him. The women were not interested in any other of the men—drunks, swindlers, landowners, and a peasant who reminded me of Caliban, playing a similar role.

Indeed, the play had a Shakespearean feel, full of crazy characters coming and going—as in an intellectual farce. I thought of As You Like It. Hare in the programme says how the critic James Wood classes Chekhov with Shakespeare “because these two alone, among the world’s writers, respect the absolute complexity of life, never allowing their creations to be used for any other purpose than being themselves.”

Perhaps as a consequence I find it hard, perhaps impossible, to say what the play was about. It could be seen as a dissection of the corruption and emptiness of 19th century Russian rural society or perhaps a criticism of women for falling in love so easily with such a reprobate. I don’t think it was either: it was simply a splendid romp with strong performances by everybody but particularly James McArdle who played Platonov with his Glasgow accent and intonation in a way that was convincing, joyful, and reminded both Lin and me of our friend Ian Morrison (not the wild antics but the voice and intonation).

At the end Platonov is shot by one of his lovers, and Lin found that disturbing. She thought that Chekhov may have written such an end in desperation because he didn’t know how to end the play. I didn’t find it all disturbing—because of the pantomime element—and I couldn’t see how a character like Platonov could possibly live into middle age—rather like Sid Viscious.

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