A play on reality

Ordinary life is what Chekov is all about, so the Moscow Art Theater will delve into the daily grind of household melodrama during its performance of the Russian classic Uncle Vanya

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, May 26, 2000 - Page 7

When it comes to the interpretation of Chekov, the Moscow Art Theater has one great advantage - the two virtually grew up together.

His success as a dramatist was assured when the Moscow Art Theater took his works and built superb productions, beginning with The Seagull in 1898. They followed this with his masterpieces Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters

(1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904).

It was a marriage made in heaven. The Moscow Art Theater was established in 1897 by one of the greatest names in theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky, who in his assaults upon the exaggerated and dramatic methods of acting that

were common at the turn of the century, created a realistic style of acting that Chekov's understated scripts required. In the process, he became one of the formative influences on modern drama.

Chekov, coming to theater from literature, was also in search of a profound human realism. He created a form of theater that contravened all the rules of drama - elevating human life in all its messiness and downplaying plot.

Ask people what they think of Chekov's stories and plays, many will probably respond: "nothing ever happens." But that, of course, is what Chekov and the Moscow Art Theater are all about. Chekov once said words to the effect that

people aren't always shooting each other, hanging themselves, falling in love or speaking memorable lines. Mostly they spend their time eating, drinking, and saying not very edifying things. It is this that we must put

onto the stage.

Uncle Vanya tells the story of the small happenings in a country house on the return of its owner and his young wife, Yelena. The house is occupied by the owner's brother, the Uncle Vanya of the title, and the owner's daughter

Sonya. The pomposity and arrogance of the owner, combined with the love felt by both Vanya and Asrtov - a local doctor- for Yelena, give rise to tensions in the household, which largely remain unspoken. A conflict in which Vanya fails to kill his brother, and Sonya fails in her eclaration of love for Astrov, lead to absurd, humiliating results for everyone. But ultimately, life goes on, and passions, after flaring for a moment, are again snuffed out.

Chekov insisted on introducing the ordinary, but not the banal, to his audiences, and doing it in such a way that made it both interesting and revealing. He sought to destroy the dramatic, and instead reveal the human

soul in all its frailty.

This is where Chekov's perennial appeal lies. As Huang Chian-yeh (黃建業), director of the National Film Archive (國家電影資料館) said: "Young people can relate to him because they also suffer from boredom and loneliness. Like

the people in Chekov's plays, they too are often striving for ideals that may never be achieved - after all, this is normal life."

Stanislavsky's "method" acting seemed particularly appropriate for bringing out the non-dramatic aspect of Chekov's plays, in which individuals are part of complex social and political structures that often overwhelm them. Under the tutelage of Oleg Yefremov (absent from the current tour due to ill health), the impressive cast visiting Taiwan, continue the tradition of ensemble acting in which no actor is allowed to dominate the action, creating a truly polyphonic reading of Chekov's play.

The Moscow Art Theater is famous as the torch carrier for the Stanislavsky method of acting, which stresses the importance of the actor's inner identification with the character and the actor's natural use of body and

voice.

One wonders how much Andrei Myagkov, the actor who plays Uncle Vanya, was joking when he said that the only reason he was chosen for the role when this production first began in 1985, was that he was 47 years of age. Uncle Vanya at mentions his age as 47 at one point in the play - so Myagkov said that now at 62, "I will find some difficulty in being true to the character. The audience will feel it has been cheated." Perhaps it is an example of Russian humor.

Myagkov, a highly successful film and stage actor and a director in his own right, is one of a strong cast including some of Russia's most distinguished actors. The weight of tradition was overpowering for Vera Sotnikova, one of the youngest members of the cast, who said: "I feel like I am carrying the weight of 100 years on my back." They look back on an ideal that took shape in the years before the Bolshevik revolution in which the theatrical mission had changed from a celebration of the nobility to the portrayal of real people in real-life situations - arguably a more difficult task.

Members of the cast agreed that it was the combination of a tradition of ensemble acting with a dedication to realistic portrayal of characters that has made it possible for Moscow Art Theater to hold its undisputed place as

an interpreter of Chekov.