Between a contemporary audience and Anton Chekhov is a distance of time and translation. His most celebrated works favour ambiguity over happy endings. And, although he's writing from pre-revolutionary Russia there's no grand politics or certainty in many of his stories or plays. If we classed his plays as tragedies, it might be more for his ecological concerns than for his characters.
But that's Chekhov. A man who wrote the greatest short story ever published about a love affair, yet who we know as a 'dreary' Russian playwright. A serious Russian playwright who was actually a Ukrainian and primarily a comedy writer. A writer who was actually a doctor. A doctor who became a patient with tuberculosis. A patient with tuberculosis who was meant to rest in pleasant climes, but instead travelled across Siberia to write a detailed sociological study on the conditions suffered by those on the Sakhalin Island penal colony.
Two productions arriving at the Adelaide Fringe and Festival respectively could not offer more different theatre experiences. Yet both understand that the way to know Chekhov is not by watching his plays in passive appreciation, but to live the experience.
At the Festival, La Mama's Uncle Vanya (adapted and directed by Bagryana Popov) departs from the stage and goes out into the world. An audience of 40 will witness the play, not in a theatre, but at Hans Heysen's home The Cedars, close to Hahndorf, and the surrounding area. It's an immersive event over two days where the actors will stay in character between acts. The blurring of what is and isn't certain in character and placing the play's ecological themes, literally, in the landscape is a shrewd interpretation of Chekhov.
At the Fringe, there's a chance to see the other side of Chekhov's life. Black Cat Theatre focus on his one act farces and monologues. These are from, or have more in common with, a period in Chekhov's life when he was a small town boy studying medicine in Moscow and living on his earnings from hundreds of comic sketches and skits. (There are single stories from this era that should be as well known as his later oeuvre: the obscure Romance with Double Bass directly influenced the most successful British sitcom of all time, Fawlty Towers).
To watch these one act vaudevilles such as The Bear and The Proposal might seem a world away from the nuance of Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. Especially as Black Cat Theatre's production is titled Chekhov at the Pub. Yet, it's another case of cleverly staging Chekhov out in the real world.
And these sketches aren't as different to his celebrated work as you might expect. The characters' lack of self-awareness and our ability to misunderstand each other preoccupy all of Chekhov's writings whether he was producing comedy or tragedy. In both productions there is a better chance to understand him.