Chekhov’s revolutions: the Russian master still speaks to a world in flux

On the centenary of the Russian revolution, a glut of revivals show Chekhov’s characters struggling to adjust to the social earthquakes that engulf them

It’s over a decade since Katie Mitchell’s groundbreaking production of Martin Crimp’s version of The Seagull at the National Theatre. At the time, the production was vilified by some for its European influences and precisely articulated naturalism, and for releasing the play from the 19th century. But its long-term influence on a subsequent generation of theatremakers staging Chekhov has been clear to see – and welcome. Chekhov’s plays have increasingly been stripped of the birch trees and given an invigorating, contemporary edge. Audiences might seem pre-programmed to kick and scream against these reimaginings of the classics, but the plays prove remarkably robust. Productions such as Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters at the Young Vic and Sean Holmes’ recent staging of Simon Stephens’ version of The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith have been revelatory.

At Cardiff’s Sherman theatre, in one of the best productions of the year so far, Gary Owen and Rachel O’ Riordan transplanted The Cherry Orchard from a Russia trembling on the brink of revolution to Pembrokeshire in 1982 as Thatcherism ushered in an era of social change, the effects of which are still being felt today. It felt very much like Owen, but no less like Chekhov.

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