19 January 2010 | The Chekov I Love

Chekov supersedes earlier playwrights, by not writing heroes and villains and not needing rhetoric or verse to dramatise humanity. His actors never have to jump the obstacles of under- or overwriting.

However, I don't read Russian. Nor do many of his British adaptors. So, it is hard to be convincingly 19th-century Russian, when the words are not Chekov's. When you can't be sure whether his language has dated, in the way that that of his British contemporaries has, for example, how can you speak it as the writer intended? That problem aside, Chekov is a joy to act. He didn't write a duff part or a half-good play. His characters, supporting as much as leading, are each presented to the best advantage. That's why he so often attracts companies of talented, like-minded actors, who revel in collective responsibility.

So the democratically run Actors' Company resurrected The Wood Demon (1973); the first RSC small-scale tour presented Three Sisters (1978); and the McKellen/Petherbridge group at the National Theatre chose The Cherry Orchard (1985).

I was introduced to Chekov at Cambridge, playing Tuzenbach in an undergraduate production of Three Sisters (1959). Margaret Drabble was a wondrous Masha: though you never see a poor one. Our director, John Barton, insisted all the actors attend all rehearsals, including scenes we were not in. He taught us the truth: that, more than any other dramatist, Chekov brings actors close together on and off the stage. If they fail to respond as a company, the plays don't work.

Ian McKellen in The Seagull, Photo by Keith Stern

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