Chekhov's Influence on Shakespeare

By Kirby, David | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Chekhov's Influence on Shakespeare

Kirby, David, The Virginia Quarterly Review

I. Something Recognizably His

It's a chilly autumn evening in London, and I've just returned from a production of Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse, the charming pocket-sized venue where Sam Mendes directed so many memorable plays (of which this is the last) before he decided to give up London theatre and instead make mediocre Hollywood movies like American Beauty and Road to Perdition. All in all, a stunning performance of the best comedy written by the world's greatest comic writer.

And yet how different this performance was from the other London Twelfth Night that had closed just a few weeks before, the enormously successful all-male production that had run all summer across the river in Shakespeare's Globe. In fact, if you were Sam Mendes, you might well ask yourself what you had in mind when you decided to go up against this riotously funny people-pleaser.

But that's what made Mendes such a gifted theatre director: that he chose not to compete with the Globe production but to mount a version that was so opposite as to seem a completely different play. Well, not completely different, but different as a twin is from its sibling, the same thing yet its opposite.

For one thing, whereas the Globe players had audiences capsizing with laughter, the Donmar Warehouse play was wistful to the point of melancholy. When these older actors (most of whom were in their 40s and 50s rather than their 30s and 40s, like the ones at the Globe) agree in II.iii that "Youth's a stuff will not endure," that became a main theme in this version, whereas I don't remember even noticing it in the Globe production. One particularly effective aspect of Mendes' minimalist set was the use of an outsized picture frame at center rear; when one character spoke longingly or fondly of another, often that other would walk on slowly and then turn and stand in the frame, gazing fondly at the lover as one might from a distance or perhaps even from heaven-the beloved sometimes seem so totally unobtainable in Shakespeare that they might indeed be dead.

In addition to the actors and the set, even the music supported this bittersweet staging. I'll say more about the Globe's music later, but suffice it here to say it was raucous and boisterous; you couldn't hear the rustic trumpets and pipes and drums without thinking of the nonsensical yet expressive word "razzmatazz" as well as its Bronx-cheer cousin "raspberry." By contrast, the Donmar Warehouse music was honeyed and sorrowful. There were only three instruments there: a piano, a guitar, and, most important, a cello whose low moans and banshee sobs were an aural match for the grays and blacks of the players' costumes.

Twelfth Night wasn't Mendes' only success at the Donmar Warehouse this season. A month earlier, I'd seen a superb Uncle Vanya there. Now Uncle Vanya is universally acclaimed as one of the best plays ever; it's on most actors', directors', and producers' top-ten lists of plays they want to be part of. But it's a play that has never really got under my skin. Certainly there are juicy lines, but the characters all seem to come from the same street in the same neighborhood, and the plot goes in one direction until it runs into a (not very imaginative) challenge and then lands quietly, like a plane coming to rest following a bit of midflight turbulence.

In fact, having seen a merely wonderful Uncle Vanya first and an extraordinary Twelfth Night shortly thereafter, I couldn't help thinking what Shakespeare might have done with Chekhov's play. With rare exception, he derived all his plays from earlier sources, which he then complicated, sometimes almost beyond recognition. At the very least, he would have added several plot lines to Uncle Vanya as well as the necessary new characters to flesh them out and also sped up the pace.

Now no doubt I was taking my thought a bit farther than other viewers would, but I wasn't alone in making connections between the two plays.

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