“Love In a Nutshell” performed by Xameleon Theatre this March is a stage adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s selected short stories exploring love and relationships, ironic, visceral, poignant and hilarious stories. Film Director Margy Kinmonth went to see the performance at the Cockpit Theatre and enjoyed the evening.

The play was performed entertainingly in Russian with English subtitles – the production adapts nine of the playwright’s short stories, which merge into each other, linked with commentary from Chekhov himself both as a young and older man, played by Oleg Sidorchik and Vadim Bogdanov respectively.

Themes range from snobbery to sex appeal, witchcraft to corruption, arranged marriage to robbery, matchmaking with misogyny thrown in. The production is directed, adapted and designed by Dmitry Turchaninov, who trained at the Moscow Arts Theatre where the Stanislavsky method was developed.

Here in the warm atmosphere of the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London, as an audience you feel closely part of the action. I love experiencing these short stories live, dramatised energetically in the round by this legendary group of Russian actors, who play multiple parts. The intimate atmosphere and proximity of the cast reminds me of my experiences while researching my Russian films, watching performances in Russia itself, where music, poetry and plays are regularly staged in the small apartment museums of St Petersburg and the State Theatre Museum. I’ve also been to performances in Moscow at the Meyerhold Apartment Museum; theatre director and actor Vsevolod Meyerhold played Konstantin in Chekhov’s first play The Seagull in 1898. See my film “REVOLUTION – NEW ART FOR A NEW WORLD”.

One of Russia’s greatest writers, Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904) wrote hundreds of short stories. He started his career writing jokes and anecdotes for popular magazines to earn money, while studying to become a doctor. In his short life, he single-handedly revolutionized the short story. The settings evoke the realities of 19th-century Russia with its harsh, relentless winters and inflexible class divisions.

Mostly Chekhov’s short stories have little definable beginning or end and seem to be mainly middle, which is the meat of the idea. As a writer Chekhov had a prolific output and was inventive with his renderings of Russian life and predicament, very character driven, and perfect for performing.

“Chase Two Rabbits” comes from a proverb, which says you can’t chase two rabbits at once, or you’ll end up with nothing. The setting is a river – a set with miles of rippling blue silk and a wind machine operated by the actors; the story is a drowning incident, witnessed from the river bank, a choice has to be made – who will be saved (if at all).

Oleg Hill, “Chase Two Rabbits”. Photo by Gemma Mount

“Romance with a Double Base” involves the river again, more swimming, and vigorous mime by Oleg Sidorchik. It’s a slapstick encounter between a princess and a hapless musician who inadvertently find themselves in a very embarrassing situation after going for their ill-advised swim. This is another classic and I’d found a beautiful black and white silent cinema version made in 1911, a lovely timeless tale filmed by an actual river, with a real thief stealing the swimmers’ clothes as our heroes swim blissfully unaware.  It’s more about the double base, but I won’t give the ending away…

The Proposal” is a farce about Lomov and Natalia, about to become engaged in an advantageous marriage;  a fast-paced play of dialogue-based action and situational humour, it’s a bit like a screwball comedy, where the odd couple argue competitively about absolutely everything. They squabble about their oxen meadows, about his hypochondria, palpitations and gammy leg, and crucially they compete over the superiority of Guess and Squeezer, their respective hunting dogs. This is a much loved classic and the audience who knew it well, rolled about in their seats, roaring with laughter and cheering at every nuance. 

Vadim Bogdanov and Vlada Lemeshevska. “A Lost Case”. Photo by Gemma Mount

After the interval, the set becomes snowy, with crunching SFX underfoot, while a huge blizzard rages outside. The story that stood out for me the most was “The Witch” the husband in another arranged marriage accuses his wife of being a witch. It’s another tale of fatalism set in deepest Russia; published in 1887, which Lev Tolstoy thought to be one of Chekhov’s best short stories.

Irina Kara is a wonderful actor known for television drama “McMafia” and “Killing Eve”. She plays Raisa the sexton’s wife, tragically trapped in sheer poverty, married to Savely Gykin, a grimy old man who got the job as sexton – with her – as wife, thrown in. He is jealously convinced she is a witch and treats her so, believing she can whip up a storm to procure men. In a sad story of destiny, she tries to escape with the postman who does indeed arrive in the snowstorm, but to no avail. And so the story goes on…

Oleg Sidorchik and Irina Kara. “The Witch”. Photo by Gemma Mount

Chekhov is unsurpassed for depicting so expressively and subtly, so poetically and yet laconically, both the nature and different types of human character. He thought inner freedom was more important than political and social freedom, and for me nothing can touch Chekhov for his sense of humour. I highly recommend reading Chekhov’s short stories, which are timeless and brilliant.

Written about a century ago, the plots and themes of these short stories with characters trapped in conflict, have their feet firmly set in past history; however, played out on the stage today, these types of relationships also firmly inhabit our present day lives. Anton Chekhov gives his characters boundless imagination and a sense of humour as the means of escape. And in today’s times, laughter is the best medicine.

“Love in a Nutshell” is due to travel to Melikhovo, Chekhov’s estate, to perform at the International Russian Theatre Festival “Melikhovo Spring” at a future date.

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