Life of Chekhov (first listening)
BBC Radio 4 Extra, 16-20 May 2011
This adaptation certainly benefited from a second listening. Early last year (2010) I had reviewed it rather negatively, despite the quality of the material. On second listening, I have to admit to revising my opinion.
First broadcast in the Woman's Hour Drama slot in November 2008, A Life of Chekhov dramatized important events in the dramatist's (Andrew Scott's) life from his turbulent childhood in rural Russia to his marriage to Olga Knipper (Niamh Cusack).
We learned that Chekhov had a violent upbringing with a father (Dave Hill) who paid little or no heed to the young man's burgeoning literary talent, and a brother (Keith Dunphy) who perpetually taunted the young Anton for his lack of 'manhood' - understood in this instance as a reluctance to fight. The family's home city of Taganrog was a traditional world, one where men and women were expected to fulfil particular social responsibilities to ensure its continued survival. Anton's talent as a writer did not fit this particular model, and he was hence perceived as 'deviant.'
As time passed, so Anton understood that he had to enter one of the professions to make ends meet; he qualified as a doctor, and became rather good at his job, even if he deplored the condition of some of his patients. No one seemed especially interested in health issues; if anyone was ill, it was their fault. The fact that late nineteenth century Russia had no proper system of healthcare was conveniently overlooked. Lucy Bailey's production suggested that it was his profession that helped Chekhov become a great writer; the fact he spent most of his days interacting with patients gave him a unique insight into human behaviour.
As Chekhov grew older, so his relationship with his family changed. His father became old and infirm, and although he relied increasingly for support on his doctor son, he could not bring himself to admit his past sins. Perhaps that was too much to expect from such a proud man. Once his father had passed on, Chekhov devoted more time to his personal life, as he chose to marry Olga - even though the decision brought him into contact with his beloved sister Masha (Romola Garai), who felt that he was betraying both his background and his profession by hooking up with such a public figure.
The characters spoke with regional accents, varying from soft Irish to harsh northern English. This was a clever decision on director Bailey's part, emphasizing the fact that, while Chekhov's life unfolded in a very specific cultural context - late nineteenth central rural and urban Russia - the obstacles he encountered (whether personal or social) could be found in similar societies all over Europe and Great Britain. This was not just a story of Russian history, but the story of someone trying to make something of his life despite the restrictions imposed on him by his family and his society.
Andrew Scott's Chekhov struck me as a man of particular fortitude; despite his physical frailties (he suffered from tuberculosis, a condition that killed him at a young age), he displayed both mental and physical strength as he understood how writing short stories not only provided him with the financial wherewithal to support his family, but gave him the chance to develop his insights into human behaviour. A Life of Chekhov was not a happy tale, but it struck an optimistic note about the potential within all of us for self-development.