BBC Radio 7, 25-26 January 2010
As part of the BBC's lavish celebration of 150 years of Chekhov's birth, Radio 7 broadcast five of his short stories read by Alistair McGowan. "An Incident" and "A Play" are apparently simple tales - "An Incident" records the experiences of two young children who happen upon a cat giving birth to kittens. They are so obsessed with the idea of caring for the kittens that they are even prepared to defy their parents' wishes. However their desires are frustrated when the dog Nero (note the classical name) eats the kittens whole. In "A Play" Chekhov records the frustrations experienced by most artists when they have to deal with talentless poetasters. Pavel Vasilyevich listens patiently to a middle aged woman reading out a melodrama of the most excruciating kind in which no cliche is left unturned, with all the grace of "a man condemned to be executed." Eventually Pavel becomes so exasperated that he beats the woman to death with a paperweight.
Both tales cover a range of emotions - innocence, tragedy and high farce (the playwright's beating the woman to death is seen as a merciful release from torment) - which is typical of Chekhov, in his desire to find a naturalistic form of expression. More importantly, Duncan Minshull's production underlined the importance of choosing the right actor to read these tales: McGowan made no attempt to over-dramatize the narrative, but used a deadpan tone, inviting listeners to make up their own mind as to exactly what Chekhov was trying to say. McGowan might appear on television as the man of many voices - an impressionist in the Mike Yarwood tradition. On radio, however, he has established his reputation as a serious actor, as well as a proficient storyteller (I remember his reading of The Canterville Ghost). I hope to hear more of his performances in the future.