Australian Arts

Chekhov

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

The trouble with the performing arts in Melbourne is that you blink and they’re gone. The other week we were going to see the new Melbourne Theatre Company offering Lifespan of a Fact with Nadine Garner but couldn’t make the opening and now it’s gone courtesy of yet another lockdown. The same with RISING the alternate version of the Melbourne Festival, which was drawing the culture vultures, even if the scheduled shows were all converging on the condition of modern dance which can be a bit fearful if your taste runs to Shakespeare and Shaw, Beckett or Bach or Beethoven.

Fortunately in times of plague, as at all others, there’s YouTube. A young millennial friend asked recently what the best version of The Importance of Being Earnest was and it was some satisfaction to tell him not only that the classic version was the 1952 Asquith film with Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell but that it can be found on YouTube. It’s all too easy to think we inhabit a simply fallen world and to forget that YouTube can bring you some of the better versions of plays that the world has seen.

Edith Evans’ cry of ‘A handbag!’ is one of the great moments in the history of comedy. When Wilde’s madcap verbal farce was filmed again with Judi Dench a lot of people said, ‘They got the wrong Dame.’ Not because there’s anything wrong with her but because the natural successor to Edith Evans is Maggie Smith.


There is, of course, a world of drama that is a far cry from Wilde. Chekhov may be a tragi-comedian of a kind but he’s as unlike Wilde as Shakespeare is. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off – one of the funniest plays ever written – is by a playwright who speaks Russian and you’ll be able to find his Cherry Orchard on YouTube with Dame Judi as Ranevskaya just as you’ll be able to get the much older early 1960s Cherry Orchard with Peggy Ashcroft as Ranevskaya, John Gielgud as her brother Gaev and the young Judi Dench as Anya.

And if you have the urge, you can see drama stretching back to the Greeks. How many plays before Chekhov have such an array of roles for women as Euripides’ Trojan Women? Michael Cacoyannis filmed it in 1971 with Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, the queen of conquered Troy, Vanessa Redgrave as the wife of her dead son Hector, Genevieve Bujold as Casssandra the girl who sees everything coming like a storm of blood, and Irene Pappas as Helen, the one who started it all when she chucked her husband for the Trojan dreamboat, Paris.

Drama does not get greater, and rarely anything like so great, as Euripides’ The Trojan Women and it is a marvellous thing that you can watch it on YouTube. It says something about the evolution of Hollywood that you could see Katharine Hepburn, one of the greatest stars of her day – think of all those drop-dead sophisticated comedies from Philadelphia Story on – but even greater here directed by the man who made Zorba the Greek in this great lamentation for womankind and the way they are ravaged by war. It is a towering performance and the translation by that grand old classicist Edith Hamilton is equal to the occasion. And Hepburn is matched by the women who meet their parallel fates, their respective desolations.

Not until Chekhov do you get a comparable focus on the suffering and sympathetic female figure. YouTube will also give you Hepburn in the mother of all modern domestic dramas, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night where she plays Mary Tyrone and Ralph Richardson is the actor husband with whom she was happy once. It’s directed by Sydney Lumet (who made everything from Network to Murder on the Orient Express) and it gives just enough mobility to this saga of a family tearing itself apart. I saw Ingmar Bergman do it on stage with Bibi Andersson and Robyn Nevin (another distinguished actress who also essayed Hecuba, for Barrie Kosky) did it first with John Bell, then with William Hurt. But Lumet’s version with Jason Robards as the drunk brother and Dean Stockwell as the tubercular artist is hard to top. And it’s part of the dramatic world YouTube will disclose to you.

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