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Chekhov on Jermyn Street

20/01/2014 12:55 GMT | Updated 19/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Why didn't I dress as Chekhov?

It's the 154th anniversary of his birth (in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov - as my A-Level texts told me back in the early 90's) - but after a couple of sips of my Jacob's Creek (out of a thin plastic beaker more suited to the office water cooler than a theatre) and a glance around the bijou auditorium, I calmed down.

It was only one man, and I increasingly feel that he didn't mean to dress as Chekhov. He just looked A LOT like him, and I simply reacted to the fact that it shouldn't have escaped his notice, and he might have done something to his hair or changed his glasses so as not to give the impression that he had turned up as the great Russian dramatist himself (on his birthday, at a performance of his works).

I digress. Back to the subject in hand - the wine.

Jacob's Creek is a perfectly acceptable supermarket wine from Australia. Many Aussie wines are grown from clone vines which are imported from France. Purists, of course, probably believe that such vines in such a place cannot possibly produce wines of real excellence, but it's a matter of personal taste. For my part, I love The Dead Arm by D'Arenberg. Made in South Australia by people who have been making wine from old imported French vines for a century.

The English have been doing Chekhov for nearly as long, and in my own, no doubt blinkered and crabby experience, I can count the amount of times I have seen Chekhov done well on one finger.

Eastbourne, 1993. A production in the bowels of the town library of Chekhov's one-act drama "The Bear". It was unholy tripe BUT I laughed so much I was very nearly sick. The local man playing the eponymous "bear" - a boorish, impetuous, desperate landowner in need of immediate money - dried on stage time and time again, repeating what in thespic terms was the "throughline" of his character:

"A man...who needs money...so desperately..."

and then, nothing save sadness from the other two actors onstage - but absolutely no way out for this local bearded desperado.

Ten paces back and forth uttering the phrase that has been branded on the inside of my consciousness for 20 years, "a man who needs money so desperately..."

Provincial actors in a dire situation of their own making, failing utterly albeit with the best intentions. That was liquid Chekhov. The fact that they succeeded in making the performance uncomfortably funny - and didn't realise it - made it a very Chekhovian piece indeed, on one level, of course.

Vaudeville is something I have never truly appreciated so you may at first glance cast me in the role of Zsa Zsa Gabor as guest commentator on a game between Albion Rovers and the Seattle Seahawks. But I assure you I am none of those things. I simply love Chekhov's plays, and I admire his short stories. He stands alone, as far as I am concerned, in the literature of the time and indeed beyond, as someone who understood the human condition as well as our relationship to society better and more wryly that anyone else, ever.

That being said, I have always thought his one act plays were a bit shit.

So here I am, on the great man's birthday, on an incredibly mild January night at the Jermyn Street Theatre, sitting next to a young actress, recently graduated from drama school

(and I didn't even have to slip the box office lady any notes), and I in my late thirties, feeling all Trigorin with my projected gravestone reading: "not as good as Michael Billington."

Will director Jenny Eastop find a way to present these works to a London audience and make them as funny as they should be? That is the question. And the answer is...

Well, look, it's tricky.

I'm really reviewing Michael Frayn here, not Chekhov. But let us assume that Frayn translated these pieces in order to better present Chekhov to English speaking audiences. The humour should be Chekhov's, should be his way of seeing the world. And in the 1880's, when these were being written and performed, theatre was mannered. So is this 2014 run of six of Chekhov's short vaudevilles stylised because Eastop thinks it should be, or does the text leave the actors no choice?

Certainly the acting is immediately of a certain mode, which is to say hammy. Michael Watson-Gray's indulging writer in the opening piece has nothing subtle to offer and yet Eastop's acceptance of the farce mode allows the audience to enjoy the young Drama Centre graduate's clear gift for nuance and timing. I asked myself why, in 2014, these plays are being performed. If Chekhov has an uncanny knack for presenting the bold truth as regards human behaviour, is it being produced now because at this point in our history we have to understand our shortcomings more than ever?

Part of me believes that a naturalistic performance would be a far better way, in these one act plays, to present Chekhov's dialogue. Certainly in the comic monologue, "The Harmfulness of Tobacco" it would have benefited us all if the Vaudeville mode had been tempered and the speaker had been allowed to portray genuine grief, or genuine frustration, or indeed, genuine anything. I didn't believe a word of it and, for me, it fell flat. Clearly it is an exercise in distraction and a comment on the intrinsic naffness of the intelligensia in Chekhov's time but, come on, this is still theatre, let the jokes land.

Chekhov speaks to us very clearly when one reads him, and he will continue speaking to us as long as we grope towards some kind of understanding. He talks to us about the fragility of our ambitions, the futility of our pride, the pointlessness of our banal crusades. And what we can find in these vignettes, these Frayn-framed recapitulations of what once formed the genesis of Chekhov's individual and unlikely genius, is a man in his precocious youth telling us how absurd we all are.

As an actor, therefore, you have to go for it. There were no better examples of this on the night than the bananas exchange between Alexandra Ryall's Natalya and Oliver Lavery's sweaty Lomov; and in the first half finale geyser of Tara Dowd's Popova and Ben Higgins' Smirnov - what began as a slow, unconvincing mockery of nineteenth century provincial existence became, due to the fight of the actors and the pace of the direction, a genuinely exciting and hilariously ridiculous piece of entertainment. With the kind of pace and attack displayed here, there was no room for the puzzling dialectic that irked me throughout most of the show: Is the purposefully hammy acting there to demonstrate Chekhov's irritation with the theatrical traditions of his time or is it the easiest way to present these short plays?

Chekhov was clever enough to excel in the very style he was criticising, but I am not sure how this production of his early work shows a 21st century audience anything new. However, accidentally or otherwise, The Alien Corn hinted at the politically current notion of (loose) French morals, as well as niftily displacing the northern English "southern nancy"-hating moron into...well, the Russian version of that.

"If Russians were taught science properly, we'd have the best professors in the world," says Higgins' Kamyshev.

Most importantly, Mercurius' Anton Chekhov's Vaudevilles and other sketches gave me something relevant to do on the anniversary of Anton Chekhov's birth, and in creating that, they made me remember how, when given attitude, attack and guts, his indefatigable sense of humour is still effective over a century later.

Runs til 1st Feb at the Jermyn Street Theatre. (Toilets are accessed by walking across the stage - enjoy that).