Are You There, Crocodile?

Michael Pennington
Oberon Books

When you purchase this volume, subtitled Inventing Anton Chekhov, you're really getting two books for the price of one.

The first couple of hundred pages provide a joint biography of the Russian doctor, playwright and short story writer and the actor who is ostensibly his biographer but also tells us much about his own life.

The final section of the book provides a full text of Pennington's inventively titled "Anton Chekhov", the one-man show that he toured around the world, to great popular acclaim.

With the exception of William Shakespeare, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is arguably the greatest playwright that has ever lived. He came from a Russian peasant family and endured a hard early life, beaten by his father on a regular basis.

This was followed by a frantic middle period during which he continued to act as a medical doctor while at the same time he became a famous playwright and writer of short stories. In this part of his life, this adventurous and energetic genius also travelled extensively and enjoyed life to the full until tuberculosis cut him down when he was still only 44.

Michael Pennington feels a real affinity with his subject and as his book develops, the two lives run side by side, making this into a very cleverly structured piece of writing. The saddest moment of the book should have been the happiest, as the opening performance of Anton Chekhov had to be cancelled after Pennington's much-loved lawyer father died on the way to attend it.

The writer does far more than merely analyse the major plays, although he does that with considerable skill, giving a chapter to each. In addition, he provides an insightful biographical overview of Chekhov, making more assumptions than the average biographer in his efforts to get to the core of the man so that he can represent him as accurately as possible on stage.

This also required Pennington to become familiar with the whole Chekhov canon to the extent of following in his footsteps across Russia and into Siberia.

As well as building a picture of Chekhov, we also learn about artistic life in pre-Revolutionary Russia with colourful characters galore including Chekhov's actress wife, Olga Knipper, the creator of so many of his key parts; and the Moscow Art Theatre with its founders, Stanislavsky, with whom Chekhov had a love-hate relationship, and Nemirovich-Danchenko.

The Twentieth Century equivalent to Stanislavsky, Yuri Lyubimov also gets an affectionate portrait, after Pennington works with him and then, as his love for all things Russian develops, periodically crosses the legendary director's path.

The balance of the book works well because once you feel that you have got underneath the skin of the Russian, you are able to see how all of the biographer's research fits together in a memorable monologue.

Pennington's identification with his subject is so great that anybody seeing the front cover of this book might well take some time to decide whether the subject photographed is the real thing or the actor. Are You There, Crocodile? is worth the investment because it works on so many levels, as biography, as travel journal, as literary analysis, as actor's memoir and as playscript.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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