Arts feature

How to think like Chekhov or Turgenev

The art of adapting Russian plays – and novels and stories – for the stage

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

I recently met an A-level English student who had never heard of Pontius Pilate. How is it possible to reach the age of 18 — to be applying to university to read English and European Literature — and never to have come across the man who asked the unanswerable question: what is truth?

This student had completed a course in theatre studies, having read hardly any Shakespeare, nor any of his contemporaries, none of the Greeks — Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides — nothing from the Restoration, no Ibsen, no Shaw, and certainly no Schiller — though he had been given the role of Hippolytus in a school production of Phaedra’s Love, which had to be cancelled when the head teacher came across a copy of the script lying on the staffroom table. Phew!

I asked what novels he’d read. Answer: nothing earlier than D.H. Lawrence. And Kes. I felt profoundly sorry for him. I have a vision of an old wooden bridge to past literary glories being slowly demolished by educationalists with hatchet, bar and crow from above as its props are loosened by axe-wielding teachers and examiners below. Way off his novel radar were the Russians. No Tolstoy, no Dostoevsky, no Gogol, no Chekhov — certainly no Turgenev. It came as a shock. There was a time, not so very long ago, when few self-respecting literary teenagers dared admit to not having read, at the very least, War and Peace. I mean, the Russians, with their ability to burst into tears in the middle of laughter, their peculiar blend of innocence if not naiveté, their obsession with burgeoning sex, the beauties of nature, the vastness of the world, and the unfairness of everything in life is the very stuff of the teenage years, is it not?

I was fortunate enough to discover Turgenev early. Having read my way through Chekhov’s short stories, I found my way into Turgenev’s novels and sketches — Fathers and Sons, On the Eve, First Love, Home of the Gentry and Torrents of Spring, and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, as my translation called it. Hunter’s Album in particular seemed to me to be near-perfect writing. Living characters climb out of the pages of the book and walk about in fields or on the edge of woodland, sleep in the open air, and fix themselves in our imaginations with little nails of closely observed detail — as real for us as they must have been for Turgenev’s first readers. It’s like watching snatches of scenes played out in forests, meadow or on riverbanks. I also read A Month in the Country but didn’t particularly enjoy it. As is often said of that play, a fortnight would have been long enough.

In fact I had only a vague idea that Turgenev had written other plays. Until a friend, bored in Malvern by the first half of a production of Hadrian VII, came out in the interval and, to kill time, wandered into a secondhand bookshop and emerged with a copy of Three Plays of Turgenev. It was an old, unperformable translation but it struck me as a real discovery — something worth saving — worth restoring, and bringing back to life. I thought it better than any of the contemporary work I was seeing at that time. And it knocked Hadrian VII into a cocked hat. So I commissioned a literal translation, worked on it with Russian friends, and we ended up on Broadway with a Tony nomination for Best New Play — 150 years after it was written. We collected Tonys for Best Actor and Best Featured Actor, and five other ‘best’ awards. I owe a great deal to both Turgenev, and a friend who got bored in Malvern.

Adapting plays is very easy really. You start with the audience. You have to learn how to please a theatre full of anything from 300 to 1,500 people. It takes about 30 years of patient, careful study. Don’t watch the play, watch the audience is the rule. There are no short cuts. Then you have to choose your playwright very carefully. Take Schiller for example: you have to immerse yourself in everything Schiller. You have to know his times, his background, and his politics. You have to learn to think like him so that if, one afternoon, he wanders off and leaves you to it — Schiller often wanders off — you’ll be able to hold the fort for him. And you have to like him. It’s no good trying to work with a playwright you don’t love and admire — one you don’t trust, or whose stagecraft is a bit dodgy — who can’t tell a middle from a beginning or an end — or one who is going to preach at your audience from the stage. (If an audience wants preaching they can go and hear a sermon. Though when did you last hear a sermon worth sitting through?)

Then there’s the language. You have to know what every line means and every shade of meaning existing under the line. Gradually you begin to develop an instinct for what rings true in an author. A good ear can’t be taught but a false note has to be recognised. The examples I always trot out are an American translation of The Cherry Orchard where Lopakhin says: ‘So we cut down the cherry orchard. You got a problem with that?’ and a recent medieval television costume drama where an Earl’s daughter says to her sister: ‘Don’t tell me you’re planning to boycott the royal wedding?’ Obviously it’s wrong — in fact, it’s hideous — but it’s often difficult to say why it’s wrong.

Having understood and absorbed the language of the original, you have to set it aside and translate its spirit. Literal translations are unplayable. Finally, the actual writing process, once everything has been absorbed, has to take place in complete isolation. I allow a minimum of six months from the point where I’m ready to start writing — though it’s often longer. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will have taken me three years by the time we open at the RSC in December. Working with Hilary — the only time I have collaborated with a living author — has been a joyful and different experience because she understands and loves theatre. I have never been so well championed and supported, whereas Euripides gave me no help at all. I can phone Hilary up at odd hours of the day and night and ask her to pull me out of any holes I dig myself into. I can’t do that with Schiller or Chekhov.

People ask me why Fortune’s Fool is only now coming to London’s West End, after 163 years — particularly as it was such a hit on Broadway. It has been proposed many times. I suppose the answer is that I’d always resisted a London production because I wasn’t ready. Translations are like old houses — constantly under repair. In this case, I’ve rebuilt the play from scratch, cutting and changing things I didn’t like about the New York production. It’s a very funny play that in a very Russian way turns tragic. Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry. But it has to be real. Turgenev’s characters address us as if they were our contemporaries and friends. Only the vocabulary has nothing jarringly modern about it. And then of course Fortune’s Fool is a very difficult play to cast — very demanding of the two central roles in particular. And the two juvenile leads require a sort of brilliance that is often beyond young actors’ years. Which brings us to the director. I’ve been fortunate in my directors — worked with the best — but in my experience you have to get the right man or woman for the job. I mean, you wouldn’t have asked Harold Pinter to direct Funny Girl, would you? And Ray Cooney wouldn’t be your first choice for Coriolanus. The reason why Fortune’s Fool is happening now is that I believe I’ve found the perfect director, designer and the perfect cast. And, it’s in the Old Vic — the perfect theatre for the play. It’s as simple as that. Some auspicious star must have brought everything together.

Fortune’s Fool is not unique. There are other great plays just across the tottering wooden bridge awaiting discovery — worth saving, worth restoring. Masterpieces of European theatre are rarely seen in London, and the outer fringes of the English language repertoire are badly neglected. Few producers are prepared to risk the vast costs involved in mounting a production of an untried, unknown play. So we have films turned into musicals, and endless revivals of old favourites. Yet when one is brave enough to take risks the results are often surprising. Michael Grandage had two smash hits with Schiller plays he commissioned from me: Don Carlos and Luise Miller. And Greg Doran at Stratford is giving the wonderful Swan Theatre over to plays mainly by Shakespeare’s neglected contemporaries — and of course to my adaptation of Hilary’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. So there is hope.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Fortune’s Fool is previewing at the Old Vic from 6 December and opens on 16 December; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are in rep at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 11 December.

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Show comments
  • Ross Maidment

    Berate an eighteen year old for not discovering the Russian playwrights and then neglect any mention of Bulgakov in your list of ‘who’s who’?… BACK TO SCHOOL!!

  • crosscop

    My favourite quote from Chekhov has to be “Keptin…they put creatures in our ears.”

    • laurence

      I salute you, sir. Gloomy day here but that had me chuckling away and has brightened things immeasurably.