He has four productions running simultaneously at London’s Royal National Theatre this month. His new film Denial was just released on two continents. He’s had three high-profile revivals in New York in the past two seasons: Skylight on Broadway with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, The Judas Kiss at BAM with Rupert Everett, and just now Plenty at the Public with Rachel Weisz. His memoir, The Blue Touch Paper, was just published by W. W. Norton.
So what does David Hare, celebrated British playwright and filmmaker, author of a distinguished oeuvre, have to say about his busy career?
“I don’t walk to talk about myself,” he said emphatically, leaving no room for negotiation. “I want to talk about Chekhov.”
Sir David, who turns 70 next spring, didn’t even have time to take off his coat for our conversation in the National lobby earlier this month. He was on his way to a rehearsal of The Red Barn, his adaptation of Georges Simenon’s psychological thriller now in previews in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre, starring Mark Strong and Hope Davis, directed by Robert Icke. But his intense focus wasn’t on this highly anticipated production. Instead it was on the trilogy of plays he’s called The Young Chekhov: Platonov (1881), Ivanov (1887), and The Seagull (1896), playing, as we spoke, on the National’s Olivier stage in an all-day, 12-hour marathon.
The plays, adapted by Hare and directed by Jonathan Kent, originated in a trilogy of productions at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year. They transferred this summer to the National with an ensemble of stellar actors, many of them cross-cast in the three plays, giving virtuosic performances too numerous to credit here. They include young actors of astonishing versatility and stamina (James McArdle played both Platonov and Lvov; Geoffrey Streatfeild tackled both Ivanov and Trigorin; Joshua James portrayed both Triletsky and Treplev; Olivia Vinall shone in roles in all three plays). Veteran actors like Jonathan Coy, Des McAleer, Peter Egan, Debra Gillett, and others portrayed the older, colorful characters with panache. (Nina Sosanya’s charming Anna Petrovna and Anna Chancellor’s daring Arkadina were especially memorable).
I had the great pleasure of seeing this luminous trilogy over a two-day period, directed by Kent with elegance, alacrity, and skill on Tom Pye’s evocative unit set (lit by Mark Henderson, with costumes by Emma Ryott). The cumulative experience was more than illuminating; it was thrilling, transporting.
The afternoon we met—Saturday, Oct. 8—marked their closing performance at the National, where the trilogy had been playing in repertoire since July to critical and public acclaim. Meanwhile Hare, who clearly cares passionately about these adaptations, doesn’t want them forgotten.
CAROL ROCAMORA: What was the genesis of this trilogy?
DAVID HARE: I never would have worked on The Seagull—go look in the bookshop over there and you’ll find 25 adaptations. They hardly need me to write another. But I’d already adapted Platonov and Ivanov, and I wanted to demonstrate the climax of the progress he made as a playwright in his 20s. It was a mission, really. I love the early plays, and I wanted to show The Seagull in the context of Platonov and Ivanov. I remember admiring Christopher Hampton’s version of The Seagull and Carey Mulligan’s performance [as Nina, in 2008]. It would have been excessive for me to add another were it not to prove that The Seagull belonged with the younger plays.
The play is an argument between old art and new art, and it updates beautifully and works wonderfully when transposed. We set it in an undefined period, with the women in short skirts rather than long, to show how modern we thought the play was.
I saw your Ivanov at the Almeida Theatre in 1997, and your Platonov, also at the Almeida, in 2001, both directed by Jonathan Kent. Please talk about their evolution, both in terms of the adaptation as well as the productions themselves.
When we did Ivanov, we knew that it already had its place in the British theatre. It’s always been played on a melancholy note, as Gielgud did, with exquisite moodiness that was very minor key. But we—Jonathan Kent, Ralph Fiennes, and I—wanted to say, no, it’s a play about a radical and the cost of being a radical in a country that doesn’t welcome radicalism. Ralph tried to fight those stereotypes of Hamlet and “the melancholy man.” So we started to revolutionize the way that the young plays were perceived. Next, when we tackled Platonov, the sheer quantity of the original material overwhelmed me: 150 pages, 20 characters. I didn’t get the tone of it right the first time. But after that production, I said to Jonathan Kent: I’ve got to do these three plays together.
How did you see the three plays connected?
They’re about youth, and they’re very specific about age. Platonov is 25, 26; Ivanov is about the hell of being 35. If you then read The Seagull, you’ll also see that it’s about age—specifically, about the middle-aged destroying the young. Trigorin comes along and can’t bear the youth of Treplev and Nina, so he destroys her. Arkadina can’t bear the revolutionary talk about the avant-garde, so she crushes her son. So once you see Chekhov’s love of youth in Platonov, then you understand what The Seagull is about.
The problem with these plays is that they’ve been performed by actors who are far too old for the roles. Rex Harrison played Platonov when he was 52. The Present [Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Platonov starring Cate Blanchett, coming to Broadway in December] features a Platonov in his 50s. I just don’t understand it. Platonov is written by a young writer who was unbelievably mature; at the same time, he’s having a lot of fun writing characters nearer to his own age.
These three plays are about the passage of youth and the tragedy of it. I prefer the young Chekhov to the older Chekhov. I think the later plays are failures. I’ve never seen a production of one his later plays—Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard—that fully works.
Chekhov himself is present in Platonov and Ivanov. When he lets himself into his plays, that’s when they work. But in the later plays, Chekhov is “hiding behind the trellis,” so to speak, and that saps the life out of them. So for me they never bloody work! Every time you see The Cherry Orchard, it’s a disappointment, so you start thinking that a play so difficult to perform may have something wrong with it. There’s no romantic passion. It’s as if Chekhov is saying, “I don’t want them to be able to define me!” The young plays are richly enjoyable because they are romantic. I never want to see another Three Sisters again!
In the later plays, Chekhov is a serene presence above the drama, but what’s really interesting to me is when he’s passionately involved with the characters, as he is in the young plays. That’s the kind of art I love: art in which there’s something at risk for the writer. I’m not so admiring of art that fakes divinity. I’ve never met a human being who’s above the struggle, and that’s my basic problem with his later work: authorial absence. He becomes less moved to write about himself and therefore less interesting.
On the other hand, you can’t criticize an artist for doing what he/she wants. Yes, I’m a fanatic—I’m alone in this view, but I know I’m right. I’m completely dippy about him, like all the rest of you. Taking a strong opinion about Chekhov is a tribute to him. You only write about the things you care about. People in the theatre love these plays, but they’re not commercial—the audiences may not want them, but the profession does. Theatre people adore them, academics love talking about them, but they don’t necessarily draw the house.
Did you have that view in mind when you adapted the plays?
At Chichester, they said, “The Seagull is a very risky play.” Those of us who work in the theatre assume a popularity with audiences that the play doesn’t have. So I’ve deliberately taken out all the references to boredom in The Seagull—it’s a block to accessing what the play is all about. It establishes a cliché of Chekhov that the audience falls into. In Jonathan’s production, there’s no languor, no world-weariness. I also took out all the anti-Semitic material in Platonov (although I kept it in Ivanov). Meanwhile, I kept the references in Platonov to the coming of capitalism and the oligarchs. The line, “Crooks die in the forest but they thrive in the drawing room,” is a prophetic description of Putin’s contemporary Russia! The country is totally corrupt. The entrepreneurs are bent, they’re ripping everyone off, and Chekhov is writing about that so early because he can see that when he’s young. I haven’t had to introduce it, it’s all there in the play, but it’s been overlooked in the massive process of adaptation. This was an overwritten play, with ideas pouring out of Chekhov—ones that a young man wanted to write.
Did you make as many changes in Ivanov, as you did with Platonov, from the first adaptation to the second?
Not as many. My work on Ivanov with Ralph at the Almeida in 1997 was one of the happiest experiences of my life. We overturned the understanding of that play. When we took the production to Russia, there was a rush toward Ralph, as if he expressed the Russian soul. He was treated like a star. So we didn’t feel we had to do anything new with the adaptation and the production. Now, with the double-casting of Geoffrey Streatfeild [as Ivanov in Ivanov and Trigorin in The Seagull], we made some interesting discoveries and connections. Normally Trigorin is played as a mature, soigné lounge lizard—the older, sophisticated man. But Geoffrey brings some of Ivanov’s agony into Trigorin. He’s not talking about the agony as if he’s above it, he’s playing it from the inside. When he says that his life is hell because he’s a writer, he’s not attitudinizing—it’s real for him. It gives Trigorin a neurotic energy. He’s usually played as a contrast to Treplev, but in our production they’re both agonized, and so is Arkadina, the middle-aged actress.
What did you learn about Chekhov from seeing the trilogy onstage?
The Seagull is my favorite play. If I were on Death Row, and I had any play performed before I die, it would be The Seagull. When I saw first saw Hampton’s version of The Seagull, I remember thinking: This a perfect play, not a word out of place. So my adaptation sort of wrote itself. But while I was writing, there was a moment I didn’t understand. It comes in Act IV, when the doctor (Dorn) is asked about his trip to Genoa. Dorn talks about walking down the Genoa streets, immersed in the crowds, and describes it as experiencing “the soul of the world”—just like the one mentioned in Act I in young Treplev’s play. Why did Chekhov have that bit in Act IV, I wondered? But then, when I saw that moment in performance, I burst into tears. It was a sublime moment, in some unreachable way. Here’s this young writer, I thought, who put forward a ridiculous idea so many years ago, and it still resonates today. It’s the idea of a writer going with the flow of humanity. Watching the moment onstage just kills me, and yet when I wrote it, I didn’t understand it. With Chekhov, sometimes you don’t really understand it till you see it, and realize how economical it is.
For example, that scene with Dorn and Polina in Act II—it’s so quick and yet it’s all there, it’s so intricately written. If you can find any flaw at all in The Seagull, I’d say the role of Medvedenko [the schoolteacher] is underwritten. You feel Chekhov is more interested in the character of Masha.
Ivanov is clumsily written in comparison to The Seagull, so I did a certain amount of work on Act IV in Ivanov to contrast Lvov’s easy moralism with Ivanov’s complex moralism, a tension that’s driving the play. As written, the play is Ibsen-like. (Chekhov pretended not to like Ibsen, but he knew Ibsen was up to something.) I fiddled with the text. But with The Seagull, I didn’t have to fiddle.
How do you contrast Chekhov with Ibsen and other writers?
Only with Shakespeare and Chekhov do you feel the characters are truly people. Ibsen sends his characters like envoys into the world, to convey a message, whereas Chekhov’s characters are his characters. Some say Chekhov is a portraitist, but I think Chekhov is a moralist; I think he’s writing about the state of Russia, backed by his own deep social commitment. His Sakhalin trip [a humanitarian mission in 1890] shows a man who’s deeply socially committed. I think Chekhov is a political writer, but like all of us, he has a horror of propaganda plays. Chekhov is super-sophisticated, one of the cleverest men who ever lived. Any crude propaganda repels him. He’s writing about Russia from a social point of view; he’s not arguing from any particular faction. Tolstoy didn’t find Chekhov’s plays social and political, but I think Chekhov found his own way of making them so.
Can you say a few words about Plenty, which will open at the Public next month?
I had this conversation because I want to put forth this view about the young Chekhov. The later plays are sapped of energy. But watching the young plays together (Platonov, Ivanov, The Seagull), the energy is like water, gushing out until the end of the evening. D.H. Lawrence once wrote: “The reader will find me in the thick of the fight; if the reader doesn’t want to join me, don’t read my books.” I want art to be in the thick of the fight. The Young Chekhov will have only been seen by 50,000 to 100,000 people. But I hope these adaptations would be read by people all over the world, who will look at Chekhov in a different light.
Carol Rocamora is a published translator of Chekhov’s complete dramatic works, as well as the author of Anton Chekhov: A Life in Four Acts, a theatre biography.