‘Young Chekhov’ is not a jolly romcom about the hard-partying college days of Russia's greatest playwright. Rather, it's David Hare's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's first three plays. Two of them kind of fit the title remit: 'Platonov' and ‘Ivanov' were lesser-known works written in Chekhov’s twenties. Slightly distractingly, the third is 'The Seagull', one of the most famous plays of all time, which premiered when Chekhov was older than I am now.
None of this especially matters, but it's probably worth making the point that they're absolutely fine to see individually. There is no real overarching concept save that they’re all by Chekhov, so if you're expecting a bunch of plays about melancholy Russian aristocrats wilting away in the country, each of which culminates in the lead character trying to shoot himself... you'd be absolutely right, but you won't get bored.
Transferring from the classy Chichester Festival Theatre, what Jonathan Kent's expansive productions really reveal is the seemingly boundless depth and variety Chekhov could mine from his crumbling world. It's also a showcase for a world-class ensemble of actors.
Never staged in its author’s lifetime, 'Platanov' has a vast character list and takes a while to settle down. But gradually the superlative James McArdle takes control as his eponymous anti-hero takes centre-stage. A boozy, semi-reluctant Casanova who in principle wants to be good but just can’t stop having it off with other people’s wives, McArdle's Platanov is hilarious, tragic and magnificently watchable, an infuriating scoundrel cursed to feel guilty about the dissolute life he’s also enjoying thoroughly.
I had to do a double take when McArdle re-appeared in 'Ivanov' as the upright, moralistic doctor Yevgeni. He is genuinely chilling as Platonov's opposite, a prim and proper man totally lacking in self awareness, unable to see that his righteous moral crusade against Geoffrey Streatfield's glum title character may have tipped into something more sinister.
If McArdle takes top honours, a big shout out must also go to Nina Sosanya, who heroically grapples with liberation and loneliness as 'new woman’ Anna in 'Platonov', and is then desperately, pitifully vulnerable as, er, a different Anna in ‘Ivanov’. And respect is also due to Olivia Vinall: the only actor to take a lead role in each play, she finds depth and difference in Chekhov's innocent young women chasing damaged older men – 50 shades of gauche. Everyone deserves huge credit, but it’d be remiss not to mention designer Tom Pye’s bucolic, watery set: gorgeous but also desolate.
So yes, each play is marked out by guns, doctors, schoolteachers, adultery, ’Hamlet’ references, vodka, a provincial setting and a sense of encroaching doom. But there is no sense of watching the same story on repeat: 'Platonov' is raucously amusing; 'Ivanov' is caustic and queasy; 'The Seagull' is gorgeously bittersweet and elegiac. Hare's wry adaptations are funny and also warm - his chief innovation is to render many of the speeches as chatty soliloquies, delivered straight through the fourth wall. And though ‘Platonov’ is still a bit messy, Hare really does make a case for it as a major play.
'Young Chekhov' is principally revelatory in that the first two plays are less well-known, though they’re hardly obscure. Essentially they’re three extremely good productions that tell us Chekhov was a straight up genius – which we already knew, but t’s nice to be reminded.