YOU may not think of great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as a comic writer, but three seldom-performed short plays coming to Stratford’s Bear Pit Theatre will make you think again. The Bridge Theatre Company production is directed by former RSC director Alison Sutcliffe, and here Ilmington-based actor Mark Carey, one of three performers, tells Gill Sutherland about it…
So Chekhov and comedy?!
It does seem anachronistic, but these are genuine comedies. Comedy Chekhov is a performance of three short plays. Chekhov himself was actually very disparaging about them later in his career. Saying they were like Vaudeville sketches and that he was only young when he wrote them. But they are actually brilliant.
We tend to think of Chekhov’s great plays, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard — how are these different?
Yes everyone is familiar with them and I think that’s why bookings at The Bear Pit have been slow, everyone thinks it’s people moaning on about how dreadful their lives are, and they should have gone to Moscow! I do love those plays but this is a very different thing.
These are three short plays of about 25 minutes long, so you’ll be in the bar before 10pm…
The first one is high farce, The Proposal; the second one is a broad comedy, The Bear, it has become quite a famous play and is done quite a lot in Europe; it’s about a guy who turns up hoping to get money he’s owed from a women whose husband has died. They hate each other and through the course of the play they fall in love or lust. The third play is really different and rarely performed, it’s called Swansong and it’s pretty much a monologue which is done by Richard Derrington, I’m the stage manager and have about ten lines.
It’s a beautiful piece about an actor at the end of his career and he’s in the theatre at night because he can’t afford his digs; he’s drunk, he’s lonely and he’s talking about his previous successes as an actor, and so he does little bits from plays; although he was always Horatio rather than Hamlet. Although not a drinker, Richard is a similar age and so it’s poignant. Richard is brilliant, he was at the RSC for 25 years in the 1970s under Trevor Nunn and he’s worked a lot with Alan Ayckbourn up in Scarborough for many years, and he was a regular on The Archers — so people will know him because of that. He lived for many years in Blockley and he now lives in Longborough.
The other actor on board is Dani Carbery, who is based in Malvern. She was in Educating Rita with me at The Bear Pit in 2015 — she’s brilliant and very funny in this. We all play a couple of plays; the first two are three handers and the last is a monologue with a small part played by me.
It will be a nice evening, it starts full of laughs and then there’s a more weighty comedy.
How did it come about?
Alison Sutcliffe is directing, she was an RSC staff director for many years, and was married to Ben Kingsley — their two boys, Ed and Ferdinand, are both actors. Richard, Dani and I did loads of plays with her at the Bridge House Theatre in Warwick, which used to run like a mini repertory theatre; and did about 11 plays over three years… I was in eight of them. That’s where Dani and I first did Educating Rita.
You first did these Chekhov comedies at the Everyman Cheltenham last September, why are you putting them on again?
We put a lot of work in but only did a short run of ten performances and they went down really well, so we wanted to do it again, it seemed like unfinished business. The thing with farces is it takes a few performances with audiences to know where the laughs are, it becomes new and different, so by the end of the run we just really started to get into our stride, so we were all keen to do it again. People really enjoyed it. The thing is, Chekhov is such a brilliant quality writer, it tells. When you get in front of an audience you can tell he really knows what he’s doing.
How are you staging them?
It’s interesting because Alison won’t compromise on production values. So the sound for instance has been designed specifically by Andrea Cox, who was a sound engineer at the RSC for many years, she’s a Stratford local, and brilliant.
We thought it would be pared down at The Bear Pit but Alison didn’t want that, so the set and costumes are similarly quite full on, which sometimes is a pain! Like when you are going off as one character and coming on as another you think ‘Can’t I just change my cap?!’ But she is absolutely right, and the soundscape is amazing… There’s quite a lot of Russian music; and feral dogs!
In the last play, which is meant to take place in a huge theatre, there’s an amazing effect where Richard’s voice echoes, and when he does King Lear there’s a great booming voice and it’s like you are in a great barn of a theatre.
Finally, Chekhov was writing before the Russian Revolution, how much relevance does it have now?
A lot of farces you just serve the plot, so the characters are there to make the action work, whereas here because he is such a great writer you get the feeling that the characters have a life.
One of the characters I play is a complete hypochondriac, and desperately nervous and unhappy, but it feels genuine, you feel sorry for him. I don’t think!
Chekhov would be capable of writing something flippant, because his understanding of us all is so sharp. And that’s always going to be relevant.
It’s amazing to think he was a doctor — a GP — during the day and then wrote these plays at night.
It’s also amazing to think that he was writing 130-odd years ago and yet his plays were unconventional in their approach to structure and plot. They weren’t exactly rambling, but he does just go off on one, with long speeches and scenes. So I think they are truly modern in that way.
WHEN AND WHERE: Comedy Chekhov is on at The Bear Pit Theatre, from 25th to 27th January, performances are at 8pm and 5pm on the 27th. Book tickets at www.thebearpit.org.uk or call 01789 403416.