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Michael Coveney: An Audience with a prop...

Michael Coveney: Debts to the Queen, new Chekhov and novel Beckett

By • West End
I wonder, now that the Queen has gone into hospital suffering from gastroenteritis, if there's suddenly any sense of complicated protocol surrounding tomorrow night's opening of The Audience with Helen Mirren as Her Majesty.

I don't think there should be, but I only ask because of the minor kerfuffle surrounding Meryl Streep's film performance as Mrs Thatcher losing her mind when the real Mrs Thatcher is distinctly frail and ailing. Does the Queen's illness - and she's almost 87, after all - make Mirren's representation of her on a stage slightly mis-timed, if not innocently exploitative?

All theatre feeds off life, and endemic to life is mortality, as the Bard of our Brevity, Samuel Beckett, knew only too well. Some people have all the luck, he says in his novel The Unnameable, born in a wet dream and dead before morning. If birth is not exactly the death of you, we certainly know that we're born astride the grave, queens and commoners alike.

And how very Beckettian of the news bulletins to elaborate on the ghastly details of gastroenteritis for our information, if not delectation. Beckett hinself gets down to the nitty gritty of physical malfunction in all of his writing, but especially in his novels, and you'd be mad to miss the masterful exposition of Beckett's prose currently at the Barbican Pit in Barry McGovern's almost skittish distillation of Watt, widely reviewed at last year's Edinburgh Festival.

In fact, if you went along to the Pit tonight, you'd have the added bonus of Barry himself talking - and here's a deadly caveat if ever there was one - to me, no kidding, right after the performance, about his life onstage and off with the old misery guts, the differences in performing the dramas and the prose, and his, Barry's, career at the famous Gate Theatre in Dublin.

It's nearly 30 years since McGovern first went to work on the Beckett novels as a source of drama, partly, I imagine (though I'll ask him about this, as well), because he'd played everything else worth playing in the oeuvre. At the end of the day, you run out of material, even if it's Shakespeare you're keen on.

As has been wisely noted, the one thing wrong with Chekhov is that there is so little of him. Which is why we've had so many productions of first drafts like The Wood Demon and Ivanov, and even Brian Friel inventing a new play in which characters from the other plays meet each other in artificial circumstances.

Rather like Beckett, though, Chekhov would still be acknowledged a great writer if he'd never written a play at all. His short stories are masterful - "reading them one gets the impression of holding life itself, like a fluttering bird, in one's cupped hands," said one of his translators, David Magarshack - and, at Hampstead Theatre later this week, novelist William Boyd adapts two of them into a new play, Longing, with one of the season's most attractive headline casts: Tamsin Greig, Iain Glen, Alan Cox, John Sessions, Natasha Little and Tom Georgeson.

One of the stories, "My Life," is one of the longest (about 100 pages), and contains everything you ever expect from a Chekhov play, and more, while the short subsidiary inset, "With Friends," not only paints a critical self-portrait of an attractive womaniser unable to commit to a relationship, but also plants the seed of The Cherry Orchard.

Unusually, and admirably, Boyd's publisher, Methuen Drama, has already circulated the text to critics. And for once a playtext contains some interesting critical apparatus - a witty and wonderful A to Z on Chekhov by Boyd himself, and a terse, informative introduction to the adaptation by Donald Rayfield. Taken in tandem with Boyd's revelatory article in The Guardian at the weekend, even the most sluggish or philistine of critics must feel well primed for this opening.

In this Lenten period before Easter, there's not much sign of sack cloth and ashes in the theatre itself. What with The Audience tomorrow night, then Paper Dolls at the Tricycle (the true story of a bunch of Filippino care home workers in Israel forming a transvestite floor show by night) and then Longing, the week is bulging with potential riches.

And before Palm Sunday we should get not only a new Pope, but also a drastic West End re-working of last year's extraordinary The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Henry Goodman leading The Winslow Boy (not astray, I hope) at the Old Vic, Steptoe and Son at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales. I'm almost glad I've only booked a very short holiday over Easter.


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