Ludmila Patlanjoglu[1]

You should carry your cross and keep your faith
Nina Zarechnaya – The Seagull

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At the beginning of the 21st century, Chekhov remains a dramatic and existential model, a destiny- author for our world; a world which raises, individually and collectively, the question of whether we should take refuge in the past or accept the present, with all its evil. Established leaders of theatre or young artists made great productions. Among them we mention The Seagull by Arpad Shilling; Platonov at Avignon; the Palace of the Popes in Eric Lacasade’s vision a huge success followed by two anthological productions, The Seagull and Three Sisters; Ivanov staged by Peter Zadek; and Three Sisters by Lev Dodin and Stephane Braunschweig.

Among memorable directing performances we also find a Chekhov triptych achieved by Andrei Şerban in Romania, at three elite theatres: The Seagull at the National Theatre “Radu Stanca” Sibiu; Uncle Vanya at the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj-Napoca; and Ivanov at the Bulandra Theatre of Bucharest. The playwright is a constant in the work of Şerban, who is widely recognized as an important interpreter of Chekhov. The director’s productions have enjoyed critical and audience acclaim both nationally and internationally. His most accomplished presentations include: The Cherry Orchard at the Lincoln Center, New York(1977); The Seagull at the Shiki Theatre, Tokyo and New York’s Public Theatre (both in 1980); The Three Sisters by the American Repertory Theatre, Boston (1982); Uncle Vanya at La MaMa – (1983) and the Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg (2009); and Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Budapest (2010).

Andrei Şerban in Uncle Vanya
Andrei Şerban in Uncle Vanya

The Chekhovian Triptych in Romania is, in the subtext, a mirror of the crisis syndrome which is familiar to so many people throughout the world nowadays; it is a reflection upon the perverting of the life gift and upon the bases of sin. In Şerban’s vision, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Ivanov are atrocious and hilarious tragicomedies about our confusing times; which lack love, faith and hope. “How ugly you are living, gentlemen”: Chekhov’s famous line (as envisioned by Gorky) offers a summation of these productions, in which God is dead, the world is meaningless and man heartless. The life of the hero entails getting lost in lies and errors; an illusion of escape which hides repressions, abandoned ideals and aspirations. The biggest frustration, the cause of all sufferings, is the lack of love. The scene is invaded by human beings with cannibalistic instincts, in relation to both themselves and others. For them, the couple, marriage, pain and death are simulacra or caricatures. Sex, alcohol, gossip and avarice become anaesthetics against boredom, despair and hopelessness. The stage designs are characterised by a disturbing, dreamlike realism. Words are spoken powerfully . Characters moan, cry or howl. A dialogue of the deaf is achieves its remarkable emotional effects through the choreography of the characters in the space. In The Seagull, at Theatre “Radu Stanca ” in Sibiu, they are on the stage together with the audience, surrounded by translucent curtains. as if in a greenhouse. In Uncle Vanya at the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj-Napoca, spectators and actors are in the auditorium together during the first half of the performance, and then together on stage during the second half. In Ivanov, at the Bulandra Theatre , the evolution of the heroes takes place backstage, emphasising their privacy. The theatre environment enhances emotionally the drama of the characters, but also of the audience. Not only the heroes are tragicomic, the director tells us, we are too. Şerban declares: “We are afraid to live, here and now: this forces us to look in the mirror, but we refuse to see, preferring to escape in dreams, fantasy and non-reality.”

In these Chekhov productions,the difference between theatre and life dissolves. The director is, simultaneously with the actors, in Doctor Chekhov’s hands, “colder than the devil.” The actors do not perform, but they assume the characters’ condition. Şerban says: “What intrigues us and always attracts us in Chekhov is the correspondence with our own lives. With The Seagull I have to question myself.” In these explosive productions, which are visually and aurally striking, Şerban is subtly updating the plays. Words sound familiar. Our daily routines – rough, pedestrian, but also ineffable and poetic – enter through the costume details and props creating a bridge between yesterday and today, between Chekhov ‘s time and our own. Şerban’s inventive and tense direction inspires the actors. It is the kind of experience which achieves an impact long after the performance, touching the life journey of each audience member and actor. The audiences and the artists are faced with a profound theatre conception by a poet/director. From master actors, to the young performers and the supernumeraries, all of the performers display exceptional expressive qualities, whether in monologue, diaolgue or ensemble scenes. Their game swings between the graceful and the grotesque, between finesse and power. Doctor Chekhov diagnoses a sick world marked by “crisis syndrome” and Şerban finds the cure for it. By the end of each performance there is hope of a way out. We sense and understand that, like the characters, we are unique and unrepeatable, and that we are created for eternity.

Tomorrow I’m going. Goodbye. I’m going to die.

These prophetic words of Chekhov to a young fellow inspired the Romanian director. The salvation of devastated souls from the writer’s plays is made in Şerban’s productions by death, which is seen as a gateway to life, as a reunion with God. In Ivanov, Sarah – the Jewish girl converted to Christianity, who pulls her cross from her neck and dies in the midst of general indifference – returns to the world of the living at the end of the play and helps Ivanov to pass away. In The Seagull, at the flame of a candle-crucifix, the mother’s figure merges with her son’s, who, from the world beyond, rings the bell and utters the words which we hear at both the beginning and the end of the production. At the conclusion of Şerban’s Tarkovskian Uncle Vanya, the characters, oppressed by sin, wallow in the mud, while a purifying rain washes them.

Suffering becomes meaningful for these cold and hardened hearts. For Andrei Şerban, the journey through darkness is also the journey towards light. The director invokes the transcendence of the theatrical act, which is seen as having the capacity to release us from our anxieties, and to create more vital worlds. He says: “It is a symptom of the crisis, but it is also the fashion to stage the darker, the more cynical and distressing productions about the life contemporary humanity. We know what darkness is, we can feel it. But where is the light? Without asking this question, we make but petty, mediocre art.”


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[1] Ludmila Patlanjoglu is a theatre critic and historian, as well as a University Professor (with PhD) and Head of the Theatre Science Department at the “I. L. Caragiale” National University of Drama and Film Arts in Bucharest, Romania. She has a Degree Honoris Causa conferred by The Arts University in Târgu Mureş, Romania (2012). She was President of IATC Romanian Section (1999-2008) and a Member of IATC’s Executive Committee (2001-2007). She is currently an honorary member of the IATC Romanian Section’s board (2008-present) and a Member of the Romanian Theatre Artists’ Association (UNITER). She directed the 2002 and 2003 editions of the “I. L. Caragiale” National Theatre Festival in Romania and the 21st Congress of IATC organized in Bucharest (November, 2003). She launched the IATC’s THALIA Prize (designer Dragos Buhagiar) and is a Member of Editorial Board of Critical Stages, webjournal of IATC.

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“The Crisis Syndrome” and Dr. Chekhov: A Masterpiece-Triptych by Andrei Şerban