I’m in Moscow to celebrate the 150th birthday of Anton Chekhov, a writer who famously hated anniversaries and who wrote of this city: "Moscow, with its cold, its rotten plays, bad restaurants and Russian thoughts, terrifies my imagination."
Along with theatre artists, critics and curators from all over Europe, I am attending a series of performances, seminars and discussions organised by the Chekhov International Theatre Festival.
Chekhov is Russia’s most celebrated writer and the most popular playwright in the English-speaking world after Shakespeare. Here in Russia, however, his fame as a playwright is eclipsed by his almost 600 short stories.
The anniversary (Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860) is clearly resonating at the most senior level. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a special birthday visit to Chekhov’s hometown of Taganrog in southern Russia.
Among the directors making the pilgrimage to Moscow are Germany’s Peter Stein and Frank Castorf, and England’s Declan Donnellan. Australian audiences have enjoyed two of Donnellan’s previous collaborations with the Chekhov Festival: his all-male Twelfth Night at the Sydney Festival in 2006 and Three Sisters at the Brisbane Festival in 2008.
Moscow is very much a theatre town. With more than 70 permanent acting companies performing in more than 200 theatres, the scale of activity can be overwhelming. The collapse of the Soviet system of support brought with it enormous changes and hard times. Some companies, such as the legendary Moscow Art Theatre, where Konstantin Stanislavsky brought Chekhov’s work to prominence, now charge up to $200 for a ticket, while others are reduced to pandering to the celebrity of TV and film stars.
On my first night I attended just such a performance, with the acting ensemble running rampant, hamming it up for a starstruck public. To see such a lack of discipline and direction on a Russian stage was both shocking and sad.
Happily this is not the case across the board and there is very fine work to be seen. At its best, Russian theatre offers seamless ensemble acting, the result of decades of working together as a company.
The following day, at a conference overlooking the Kremlin, leading figures from Russian and world theatre spoke in highly personal terms about a writer who means so much to them.
Castorf, from the Berlin Volksbuhne, talked of his anxiety in approaching his first Chekhov production. "I love Chekhov so much," he said, "I’m scared I might ruin him."
Russian director Kama Ginkas discussed Chekhov’s abhorrence of vulgarity, explaining that this did not refer to garishness but to the loss of individuality and purpose. The greatest crime of all was to end up like Firs in The Cherry Orchard, who declares: "And life has passed by somehow, as if I never lived it at all."
Donnellan reminded us of the writer’s uncompromising honesty: "He sees us as who we are. He doesn’t see us through a prism of sentimentality, and that is shocking for us." Above all the guests paid tribute to the wondrous musicality of Chekhov’s language.
In its summer season later this year the Chekhov festival will present productions of some of the playwright’s major works as well as interpretations inspired by his life and ideas. Surprisingly much of the emphasis has fallen on artists more associated with dance than straight theatre.
Choreographers such as Lin Hwai-min from Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Nacho Duato from Spain’s Compania Nacional de Danza and Mats Ek from Sweden’s Dramaten are just some of those who are preparing Chekhov-inspired productions.
One such commission on show this week was Donka, a playful work by Swiss new circus director Daniele Finzi Pasca. It is a joyous kaleidoscope of images that explore Chekhov’s twin careers of doctor and artist.
One of the highlights of the week was a drive to Melikhovo, a small country estate Chekhov bought in 1892 and where he lived until 1899 with his family.
In 1894, in a small timber lodge overlooking the trees he had planted, he wrote The Seagull, which, after a failed first outing, was staged with great success by Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre.
The lavish sets and costumes that so often characterise English-language productions of Chekhov seem somewhat ridiculous when one is faced with the simple cottage-like buildings with their low ceilings and small rooms.
Chekhov may prove difficult to avoid in 2010, with many cities hosting several of his works.
One of the most highly anticipated will be the Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya, with Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh and John Bell, staged by the great Hungarian director Tomas Ascher.
The Hampstead Theatre in London recently completed a week of readings and performances to raise money for the restoration of the White Dacha, the author’s house in the holiday resort of Yalta. Major productions are also planned in Buenos Aires, Santiago and even Kenya, where for the first time Chekhov will be performed in Swahili.
A few months before he died, Chekhov told the writer Ivan Bunin he thought people might go on reading him for 7 1/2 years. If anything, a century later he is more popular than ever.
His ethics of modesty, hard work and personal responsibility seem particularly timely, and on the question of the environment his heroes sound eerily prophetic.
In Uncle Vanya, Dr Astrov pronounces, "Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wildlife’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day."
In this and many other ways, Chekhov challenges us to aspire to "health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies".