THIS week marks Anton Chekhov's 150th birthday. His four major plays – The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya – have cemented his status as one of the world's great dramatists.
But in Britain, he is a playwright with a long history of being misunderstood. Over the coming months in Scotland, however, three productions will show how today's directors and translators are determined to present the Russian master in a different light.
The problem goes back to the earliest London productions of his work. The first UK staging of The Cherry Orchard was in 1911, six years after its debut at the Moscow Art Theatre. Like the productions of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya that followed soon after, it was a worthy attempt at engaging with this new Russian voice, but it failed in one crucial respect. It didn't get Chekhov's sense of humour.
Imagine taking the deadpan irony away from Ricky Gervais in The Office and you'll have an idea of why these stagings left audiences puzzled and depressed. A whole generation came to regard Chekhov as a "moody, moping, muddled highbrow", observed one commentator.
Things improved in 1925 when a production of The Cherry Orchard reached London via Oxford. There were still those who found it "dull, stupid stuff" and saw "no reason why this fatuous drivel should be translated at all". They were not typical, however, and there were enough people calling it "flawless" and a "masterpiece" for the production to transfer to a second London theatre and enjoy a run throughout that summer. "Once we knew we were allowed to laugh, of course, everything fell into place and took on meaning," recalled the critic WA Darlington.
But in the course of his review of The Cherry Orchard ("an imperishable masterpiece"), the critic James Agate made a revealing remark. He said he had overheard a woman in the audience complaining that "these Russians have a very un-English way of looking at things". She was voicing a recurring resistance among audiences to anything that did not conform to their own worldview.
Perhaps as a consequence, British productions have had a tendency to vary between two extremes. Some have made Chekhov's world seem very alien, a place of samovars, serfs and impossibly long journeys to Moscow. Others have infused the plays with a very English sense of torpor and wistful longing for the past. Reviewing a production of The Seagull in 1949, one critic observed that the acting was "too English in its reserve" and, as recently as 1996, playwright Howard Barker was touring his own version of Uncle Vanya (in which Vanya's gun hits its target instead of farcically missing), written partly in reaction to the way he thought British audiences found an unhealthy comfort in the inertia of Chekhov's world.
He might have been right in that, but directors had begun to correct the imbalance as early as 1958 thanks to a visit by the Moscow Art Theatre to London. In a typically brilliant review of a Cherry Orchard that blew the "cobwebs off the play", Kenneth Tynan complained about the mood of elegy that Britain liked to impose on Chekhov. "We invest it with a nostalgia for the past which, though it runs right through our culture, is alien to Chekhov's," he wrote.
DIRECTOR Sean Holmes, whose production of Three Sisters for the Lyric Hammersmith is touring to Edinburgh's Traverse this spring, is less quick to criticise his forebears. "It reflects its time," he says. "Before the new writing revolution of 1956, how could you not do it through the prism of the rest of the theatre that was going on? Chekhov, like Shakespeare, is classical writing; it can take a lot and it reflects the concerns of its age. He was writing at a time of immense social change. He saw the inertia and the corruption and he also saw the possibility of change. Of course, if you do it in Britain afterwards, it's going to be inflected by a sense of the lost age; it'll end up being Edwardian. And some of those productions might have been great for their time."
All the same, in his collaboration with Filter, an experimental theatre company, he has sought to break free of the usual Chekhovian trappings. "We've set it in its world without finding the exact replica of a Saint Stanislav's medal, second class," he says. "Sometimes your energies go into the pursuit of historical accuracy rather than what's going on in the play. With Filter, I want to see the play afresh. Every photo of a Chekhov production has a man in a crushed linen suit. I just wondered if there was a way of starting from somewhere else. Our design is a collection of furniture you might get in a rehearsal room and the costumes are a nod to anything through the 20th century."
John Byrne, celebrated author of The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, is not a playwright you could accuse of being too English. His version of The Cherry Orchard for Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum is set in a country house somewhere between Braemar and Pitlochry, where the accents range from colloquial Perthshire to well-to-do landowner. Madam Ranevskaya is now Mrs Ramsay-Mackay.
"The thing that initially appeals to you is the threnody for that whole class humbling," says Byrne, who translated Uncle Vanya as Uncle Varick for a production starring Brian Cox in 2004. "It's a romantic idea and you get so fed up with it because it isn't what he was writing about at all."
His second shift is from turn-of-the-century Russia to our own winter of discontent. In place of the onset of revolution anticipated by Chekhov, we get the first hints of the Thatcher years. The local shop has been turned into a deli and, just like in the original, the land is going to be given over to holiday homes.
"It's the early months of 1979 which gives it a whole context," he says. "They've just had all these train strikes and the train is two hours late getting to Pitlochry. It's not about that, but there's a background of that history and what we've ended up with now. We've inherited the counter-revolution that came through Margaret Thatcher. There were big changes we can recognise historically."
For director Kenny Miller, working for Glasgow's lunchtime theatre, A Play, a Pie and a Pint, will force him to conceive of The Seagull afresh. Not only will he compress the four-act play into an hour in a version by Mary McCluskey, but also he will do it with just four actors.
"I love a challenge," says Miller who has previously directed reduced versions of Romeo and Juliet, and Antony and Cleopatra in the same slot. "When you're doing a show in the classic season for Oran Mor, you have to approach it as a completely new piece. It gives you a more modern way of looking at it."
&149 Three Sisters is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-27 March; The Cherry Orchard is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 16 April-8 May; The Seagull is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, in June. The RSAMD is also staging a production of Three Sisters, at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow from 30 March-3 April.