Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya was part of Chichester’s opening slate of productions when the theatre first opened its doors in 1963. It was then the home of the nascent National Theatre; now it is an influential stand-alone producing theatre, which regularly originates shows before runs elsewhere.
But right now, Chichester is offering a festival of three early Chekhov plays, presented under the umbrella title Young Chekhov, all of them in versions by David Hare. They’re not so much festive as restive, each portraying the damage that people inflict on each other — and themselves. “I don’t want to be happy, I want to be with you,” James McArdle’s unwitting lothario Platonov tells his wife Sasha (Jade Williams) in one of the evening’s most stinging lines, as she confronts him over his affairs with widow Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya) and married woman Sofya Yegorovna (Olivia Vinnall), as he serially derails everyone’s lives.
This rarely seen play, which was last given a major production at the Almeida in 2001 directed then, as now, by Jonathan Kent, finds plenty of rueful humour among the broken hearts. So does the more frequently produced Ivanov – the first play that Chekhov completed – which preceded Platonov at the Almeida in 1997, with Kent directing Ralph Fiennes in the title role, and was more recently revived with Michael Grandage directing Kenneth Branagh in the title role in 2008. This inward-looking journey into one man’s depression – and its impact on those around him — is charted with a deeply internalised sense of haunting and haunted despair by Samuel West.
Kent, working again with adaptor David Hare who has freshly revised his earlier versions of those two plays, now adds a third Chekhov to make a full set with the far better-known The Seagull. While each production can be seen on its own, they are interrelated by casting overlaps, the unit stage design by Tom Pye that is capable of versatile adaptation, but most of all by thematic similarities. In The Seagull we have yet another deeply depressed protagonist Konstantin (Joshua James), and – spoiler alert – another ending that culminates in death.
But as much as each involves depression, mental instability and unrequited love, the plays are not in themselves depressing and have plenty to repay our love for them, especially as produced here with such tangible love and feeling. Kent and designer Pye create truly immersive worlds for each play, including a complete lake for The Seagull and a full-size railway track for Platonov that appears seemingly from nowhere. But the casting throughout is a triumph, too, from such rising younger stars as James McArdle, Joshua James, Olivia Vinall and Nina Sosanya, to long-established actors including Samuel West, Peter Egan, Jonathan Coy and Anna Chancellor who lend their considerable experience to an evening of fully-inhabited life.