Oleg Sidorchik and Irina Kara in The Witch. Image by Gemma Mount.

Xameleon Theatre treats London audiences to a new insight into the life and works of Chekhov in their innovative production Love In A Nutshell at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone. Performed in Russian with English subtitles, the production adapts nine of the playwright’s short stories on the theme of love and marriage, linked by a commentary from Chekhov himself as a young and older man (Oleg Sidorchik and Vadim Bogdanov, respectively). Dramatized by director Dmitry Turchaninov, some of the stories may well be familiar to English audiences and deal with the universal themes of love and the various stages of a marriage. The Proposal humorously depicts the volatile courtship of Ivan and the indomitable Natalia–admirably played by the versatile Vlada Lemeshevska–while Romance With A Double Bass is a slapstick encounter between a princess and a hapless musician who inadvertently find themselves in a very embarrassing situation after going for an ill-advised swim. Other lesser-known stories such as A Happy Ending and The Daughter Of Albion affectingly evoke the realities of 19th-century Russia with its harsh, relentless winters and inflexible class divisions.

The staging of the production is simple but effective with a small cast of actors–including writer/director Turchaninov–playing multiple parts. A screen at the back of the stage allows non-Russian-speakers to read a translation of the script, although at times this proved to be a distraction for an English audience, with the odd delay and continuity problem. However, the translations were extremely high quality and displayed none of the stiltedness of some translations of classical Russian literature. At times there were some issues with pace and timing, especially in the opening piece Chase Two Rabbits,  but after a hesitant and rather self-indulgent start the separate pieces flowed pleasingly through the stages of relationships, the seasons of the year and the strata of Russian society–truly to give a picture of Love In A Nutshell.

The Xameleon company, based in the UK,  is multilingual and there’s an obvious understanding of the need to adapt and make explicit the “Russianness” of setting and milieu. In A Happy Ending, say, the role of village matchmaker is portrayed with humor and affection by Irina Kara, who also does justice to another village matriarch in The Witch.  The stories have been skilfully selected to show the universal concern of both peasant and gentry–to find a compatible partner and sustain a lasting relationship. But they also reflect the Russia of Chekhov’s time with the grinding poverty of peasant life and the hapless role of women in a misogynist society. The addition of the story The Daughter Of Albion was especially apt for this UK production, all three actors giving an amusing and trenchant view of how our two countries have viewed each other in the past.

Although the production seemed to attract a largely Russian-speaking audience, this is a piece most definitely accessible and pertinent to British theatergoers–it was encouraging to see English school children attending, suggesting some schools are bucking the trend for dispensing with European modern languages and are still teaching Chekhov, whether in Russian or translation. Shows like this, produced by artists who transcend both cultures, are infinitely valuable in helping all of us to understand and respect the cultures and attitudes of the past and present, in both societies. Interestingly, this company, which doesn’t limit itself exclusively to productions based on Russian themes (their recent shows include The Marriage Of Figaro and The Little Prince) promises more projects based on Russian and Soviet classics in the autumn.

This post originally appeared on CEEL.org.uk on June 22, 2017, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.