Chekhov in Siberia

Sara Wheeler

Filed under: Drama

Michael Pennington brought the peripatetic playwright to life

In 1890 Anton Chekhov did a most unChekhovian thing: he battled 4,000 miles  across Russia in order to conduct a survey of the penal colonies on Sakhalin Island. At this Skidelsky Russian Meeting, held  in Notting Hill’s Twentieth Century Theatre, actor Michael Pennington brought that journey superbly – and shockingly – to life with a pungent one-man performance.

Playwright and translator Timberlake Wertenbaker introduced the actor as a man ‘with a 40-year association with Chekhov’. Like his subject, then, who was a doctor as well as a writer, Pennington leads a double life – in his case, that of scholar and actor. And what use he puts it to. In front of a full house Pennington read extracts from Chekhov’s account of his Siberian experiences, and, without costume or stage setting, led the reader across the taiga.

Why did Dr Anton do it? Sometimes, Pennington revealed, the Master felt he had ‘wasted his life in fornication’ (who hasn’t?), so he went to Sakhalin to be useful – to report on the various kinds of settlements where exiles rotted in prisons and forced-labour camps. Speaking Chekhov’s words in the first person, Pennington conjured broken shafts of springless carriages, a pond of light cast by a tallow candle in a hovel, and the sweet call of a bittern through the darkness on a night ferry. A sausage ‘tastes like a dog’s tail soaked in tar’ and at times the narrator ‘felt my soul was made of jelly’. Pennington included moving vignettes of encounters along the way.  Of a blond peasant with a moustache on his way to Sakhalin in chains, Chekhov writes,  ‘His face said clearly, ‘‘I’ve given up.’’  The man said, ‘‘It can’t get worse.’’ Someone else in the cart said, ‘‘It will.” ’

Although the journey and the subsequent three-month sojourn on the island were gruelling beyond belief, especially for a man who did not enjoy good health, there were lights in the darkness. At one point Pennington/Chekhov reflects, ‘How rich Russia is in good people.’ And who can forget the cook ‘kneading sunshine into the dough’?

Sailing across the Tatar Strait on the final leg to Sakhalin (an island twice the size of Greece), Chekhov wrote,  ‘On my left monstrous fires were burning, above them the mountains, and beyond the mountains a red glow rose to the sky from remote conflagrations. It seemed that all of Sakhalin was on fire.’ He goes on to paint a picture of utter degradation – children sold for a pint of alcohol, prepubescent girls  forced into prostitution, men chained to wheelbarrows. ‘It has brought me to realise,’ he wrote, ‘the real meaning of exile – capital punishment has been given a different form.’ Pennington’s narration of this catalogue of horrors was masterful in its restraint.

One sensed, all the way through the performance, Pennington’s deep affection for Chekhov: that intimate relationship that can miraculously bloom between reader and writer.

Let us leave Sakhalin with Chekhov’s advice, after so much horror, in a single line read quietly and with great poignancy by Pennington: ‘The sun only rises once a day, so take hold of the rest of your life.’ Indeed.

Sara Wheeler’s most recent book is ‘O My America!: Second Acts in a New World’.

Meeting: 1 October 2013

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Sara Wheeler 1999