Chekhov: The Lady with the Dog and The Bear

Anton Chekhov
ART Theatre
Union Theatre

Anna Viller in The Lady with the Dog Credit: Courtesy of ART Theatre
James Viller and Anna Viller in The Lady with the Dog Credit: Courtesy of ART Theatre
James Viller and Anna Viller in The Lady with the Dog Credit: Courtesy of ART Theatre
James Viller as Gurov in The Bear Credit: Courtesy of ART Theatre

Anything by Chekhov always gets my juices flowing, and I anticipate the double bill from the newly formed ART Theatre will be a shot in the arm, albeit a small one, as the double is made up of the 1899 short story The Lady with the Dog (written in Yalta) and the equally brief one-act comic ‘French’ vaudevillian (vodevilchik, Chekhov called it) The Bear from 1888. Both are played as two-handers (The Bear’s Luka is voiced off stage), quite suitable for the tiny fringe Union Theatre.

I expect the pairing to show up the wry providence of life and love, the repressed passion simmering underneath. Performed by James Viller (trained Drama Centre London) and Anna Viller (trained Boris Shchukin Theatre Institute), he English, she Russian, a young married couple, starting out on their stage journey, it is a showreel in a sense, and much, I should imagine, is riding on it.

Directed faithfully (down to the watermelon) by Dmitrij Turchaninov, an alumnus of Moscow Art Theatre School, I hope for something in the line of Rimas Tuminas’s Vakhtangov theatre, expressionistic physical theatre, but what we get is a breaking of the fourth wall and a telling straight to the audience on an almost bare stage, lighting doing the dramatic heavy lifting.

Lady with the Dog opens: dressed in period, Anna Sergeyevna and Dmitry Gurov, both married to other people, meet on vacation in Yalta, where Chekhov often convalesced. He is much older than her, but something develops that takes both by surprise, him especially. He falls in love for the first time in his life. But how to resolve it, as neither can leave their partners. What lies ahead, Chekhov doesn't say. A womanizer himself, as is Gurov, he leaves it to us. “The most difficult part is only just beginning”. A mirror of Chekhov and Olga Knipper’s relationship…

James is maybe too young for Gurov, whilst Anna is a good model for her elegant namesake, the innocent woman, who has never before broken her marriage vows. Such are the prison walls of marriage. Gurov can’t forget her, seeks her out in Saratov, in Moscow at the opera—she is sitting in the front row, and he climbs over the audience to get to her.

It can be a wonderful mood piece, and it’s been adapted often, but getting the tone right is difficult. They tell their stories separately—“we talked”, he says. They talk to us, which takes the air out of their dynamic. Her comical frisky little dog steals the limelight for tonight’s audience, awkwardly lit for the confessional monologues. The soundscape is excellent.

What rescues it for me is the black and white period video projection, a silent film showing Yalta (shots of the sea as metaphor?) at the turn of the nineteenth century and Moscow in the snow with horse-drawn sledges (I spot the Tsar Bell), and I almost forget to watch the young actors. Lady with the Dog (Dama s sobachkoy) was made into a black and white film in 1960 by Iosif Kheifits, and I hope to see Aleksey Batalov on the waterfront and Iya Savvina, but of course it’s not that film, but a silent documentary with captions (which help as the timid Anna is not always audible) mirroring proceedings on the stage.

The Bear is meant to be cruder, and more of a farcical stand-up double comedy routine. It was very popular in its time. Smirnov, an impoverished, grumpy, uncouth landowner, comes to Popova to reclaim a debt from her husband. She is a lonely widow of seven months who has immured herself in the house in grief, lying on a bed as if on a catafalque, her love transferred to her horse, Toby. She can’t pay, it almost comes to pistols at dawn, but then her spirited demeanor turns him on.

Smirnov gets down on his gammy knees and asks her to marry him—in a flash of realisation—quite a turn up for the books, all in one day. They kiss passionately. The bear has been tamed by a woman rejecting him: a staple scenario of many a Hollywood film. Toby doesn't get his oats tonight—love has been transferred again.

The Bear needs to be paced like a piece of music, a duet, rising to a crescendo. James lowers his voice for the role; Anna swallows her words. I don't find it funny—maybe it's the sauna heat in the room. There is no sound to support them, just their talents. Timing is all.

Reviewer: Vera Liber