Thursday, September 25, 2008

I review a huge, fascinating Chekhov DVD set...

I thought this turned out fairly well, this review of the BBC's complete set of Chekhov plays, which ran today in PopMatters.

The Anton Chekhov Collection
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Rex Harrison, Ian Holm, Michael Gambon, Eileen Atkins, Janet Suzeman, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud
US release date: 2 August 2008 (BBC)
by Jennifer Kelly

In all Chekhov plays, you can be certain of three things: a doctor will be one of the sympathetic characters, there will be an extended meditation on the value of hard work, and the scene where the characters first walk on the stage will be the one where they are as happy as they will ever be.

This new compendium of BBC-produced Chekhov plays contains over 1,000 minutes of material, acted by a who’s who of British theater. It includes all four of the great classics (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard), as well as a smattering of early materials, radio plays, short-story adaptations and readings, and a very interesting piece on the current Moscow Arts Theater’s workshops with English student and professional actors.

The six-DVD set is exhaustive (and, if you view too much of it in one go, exhausting) but provides a real depth of insight into these plays and their possibilities. For instance, there are two interpretations of The Cherry Orchard, one a black-and-white film adaption by John Gielgud from the 1960s, the other a 1981 play-for-television version. What’s interesting—and what points to the continuing fascination of Chekhov for some of the world’s best actors—is that Dame Judi Dench appears in both. In the earlier version, she plays the effervescent teenager Anya, hair pulled back in a braid, eyes sparkling and ready to fall in love. Twenty years later, she is the spendthrift aristocrat Madame Ranevskaya, worn out by life and about to lose her cherry orchard. The acting styles in the two productions could not be more different, the older version broader, more theatrical, and revealing a certain sexual heat between the boorish Lopatkin and Madame Ranevskaya (Peggy Ashcroft in this version). The newer one, on the other hand, is more closely shot and subtler, adapted obviously for the small screen, yet it would be very hard to say which is better.

The rest

A non-DVD performance of “The Seagull”

And, “The Three Sisters”

And look, here’s a very young Judi Dench in “The Cherry Orchard”

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