The sort of production I aspired to was the very opposite of what at the time was conveyed by the adjective ‘Chekhovian’. Though the plays may leave you with a sense of the sadness and bleakness of life, this is not what they describe. Chekhov’s characters are for ever on the hunt for amusement of some sort, anything to distract them from the underlying drift of their lives. They play games, stage amateur theatricals, enjoy magic shows, or just sit under the trees in the garden having long circular conversations over their tea. And they are always offering each other hospitality. The first two acts of Three Sisters are both extended parties, and the most spectacular party of all, the most absurd, is the ball given by Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard on the day she and her brother put the family home up for auction. Her social equals who would normally have attended such an occasion have all moved away from the district or died. However, so determined is she to cheer herself up with music and company that she makes up the numbers of guests by inviting such people as the Postal Clerk and the Stationmaster. This is surely as funny as it is tragic, and suggests that the playwright was not joking when he described the play as a comedy. Walk past a London pub on a warm summer night, with customers spilling on to the pavement: the intense and jubilant buzz of people absorbed in the pursuit of a good time blocks out any thought that for some of these same people (and for all of us eventually) winter is not far away. Chekhov allows us, unlike the pub’s customers, to see both these realities at once.
Stage Blood: Five tempestuous years in the early life of the National Theatre