New versions of old classics?

Tom Sutcliffe on new productions of Chekhov and Mozart

Benedict Andrews’s Young Vic staging of Three Sisters only mildly updated the Chekhov, playing it on a largely unfurnished thrust stage, audience on three sides under quite harsh lighting. He used his own ‘version’ based on a ‘literal translation’ from Russian by Helen Rappaport who played a similar role in other ‘versions’ of Chekhov by Stoppard, Crimp, Hare and the Young Vic’s boss David Lan. Andrews sought, I think, to make the life shown feel less ‘period’ and becalmed, more up to date – thanks to taut editing and cuts. Andrews has, as a playwright himself, an ear for dialogue, and it was a fine cast led persuasively by Mariah Gale’s telling Olga, Gala Gordon’s brilliant newcomer Irina, and Vanessa Kirby’s sparky young Masha – though William Houston’s Colonel Vershinin and Sam Troughton’s Baron Tuzenbach heading for his fatal duel were too like peas in a pod. The problem with a ‘version’

that is not a translation is that the responsibility is blurred and so is the material. A translator owes loyalty to the author, whereas a good director may have other motives (and I don’t just mean two fees). Is a literal translation of a playtext possible, since words in the theatre and opera are organic to what the author wanted? They are essence, not context.

Honour and service

There is also the problem of the servant and the duel, dependence and honour. Chekhov died in 1904, ten years before world war terminated both the idea of honour as a manifestation of superior class and the old sense of service as a bond rather than a financial contract. Service as it existed for thousands of years in Europe meant an identification between servant and master or mistress that involved mutual loyalties and dependence. Now we think service is all about contracts and payments.

Natasha, the nouveau-ish wife of Andrey the brother (she Is very well and ferociously played by Emily Barclay as the single Ocker Australian in the whole cast) wants to get rid of the family’s old nanny Anfisa, and the Aussie director Andrews has her say ‘She’s useless, old, she should be in a home. You indulge her.’ My 1951 Penguin translation does not mention a care-home (as we now falsely tag them), but instead has Natasha say, ‘She’s just a peasant woman, her right place is in the country.’ Of course peasants are a medieval notion in England and never happened in Australia, and in fact Ann Queensberry as Anfisa seemed more like somebody’s Granny than a semiretired nanny. Too much did not quite fit or engage one. The Bowie further destabilized Chekhov’s precision.

If Chekhov on stage here now needs new ‘versions’, think how hard it is for modern atheistic directors to come to terms with Mozart’s adaptations of Beaumarchais and Tirso de Molina. Because Don Giovanni is heading for hell, must he be a villain? Is Leporello, his manservant, compromised by sticking around – or laudably loyal? Is it about sex, or death or love? Two different productions on consecutive nights in Augsburg and in Stuttgart were each very different and equally misguided.

Andrea Moses’ Don Giovanni production in Stuttgart was described as ‘heiter-ironischen’ (amusingly ironical). What that actually meant was that she did not stage the opera by Mozart at all, but instead did her own version of the story. The old Commendatore though wounded did not die but staggered offstage just in time to avoid being found out. So, none of that eternal punishment or stone guest at dinner – which perhaps Ms Moses found too absurd even in the theatre. The events happened in and around the DG Star Hotel (an expensive island set that swivelled whenpushedshowingabar,various bedrooms, and a garage with a giant video screen). Giovanni, charming and simpatico, later seemed to be holding a fur-coat fair and fashion launch on his premises, and the Contadini (the peasants led by Zerlina and Masetto who did not seem to be getting married) were just passers-by or potential consumers out for a laugh. Donna Elvira was mad in her pursuit of Giovanni. Anna was initially having an affair with him. Later, she just managed to persuade Don Ottavio that Giovanni had done everything the original story suggested. At least Andrew Schroeder’s handsome no longer young Giovanni was likeable. Usually in Germany his old-fashioned attitudes towards women mean he has to be disliked.

Figure of Death

The fashion and photography enthusiast Patrick Kinmonth was often Robert Carsen’s designer. His Augsburg Don Giovanni (which he directed as well as designed) used eighteenth-century costumes, a more or less single set with cypresses coarsely painted on drop cloths, and an equestrian statue in the middle of a pool, through which there was much dashing. The distinctive idea was having a figure of Death in a skull mask and long black robe cropping up all the time – often with a team of black-clad undertakers or mourners.

Stuttgart served the music well, with fine singing. Augsburg’s singing and playing were both terrible, and the conducting no better, full of strange pauses and bizarre tempi. Mozart is much funnier and more truthful than either of these approaches would suggest. It is a comedy, based on truth. But, to see that, you have to stage the work as the composer and poet created it. ND