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Critics Square the Circle

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With just two more performances to come, the Sovremennik Theatre of Moscow is giving us a rare opportunity to hear Chekhov in his native woodnotes wild.

You don't have to understand Russian to appreciate how beautiful is this language, or how musically subtle and impassioned are the performances of the Sovremennik actors.

At last night's Three Sisters, the audience included the great pianist Alfred Brendel and the documentary filmmaker Roger Graef, both enraptured by the actors, though Roger muttered something about the show being a little old-fashioned.

Personally, I can live with the "little old-fashioned" of Russian actors any day. We've been so brain-washed by English notions of what Chekhov should sound like -- usually Somerset Maugham with a dose of misery -- that we've become immune to the soulful anguish of the characters, convinced that the way to play them is light, fast and airy.

Chekhov writes comedy, we repeat to ourselves, we mustn't get trapped into the cliches of Russian doom and gloom. Well, we are wrong, and the correct way to play Chekhov is surely as the Sevromennik actors do: with feeling and an overpowering sadness, sometimes sotto voce, but usually in a great howl of resignation and gut-wrenching agony.

Every single performance, and especially from the actors playing Vershinin and Solyony, is more tragically weighted and "felt" than Derek Jacobi's King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, for instance.

So it was no surprise at all that Jacobi was honoured at yesterday's Critics Circle awards, or that Michael Grandage, his director, should thank  the critics for their unflagging support of his work over the past fifteen years.

As they used to say on Private Eye, pass the sick bag, Alice.

How odd that, in announcing their annual awards yesterday in the Prince of Wales Theatre, the Critics Circle (of which I am a proud member since 1974) should claim that the prizes are decided not as in a panel discussion (the ideal argumentative context, I feel, as at the Evening Standard) or in a place where "public/industry influence" was exerted.

Is such influence exerted in other awards? Oh dear, and if so, does it matter? The idea of awards unadulterated by public or PR input is patently absurd, no less in the Critics Circle than in the Oscars or the Tonys. Just look at the results!

When these critics' awards originated, in the heyday of Plays and Players magazine, a split vote in any category was decided, properly, by the editor.

Joint winners are non-winners. Yesterday's split thumbs up for Grandage's King Lear and Thea Sharrock's After the Dance should clearly have been decided in Sharrock's favour; especially when you take into account Grandage's feeble NT debut with Danton's Death.

I was sorry not to have been able to attend yesterday's ceremony, it's always a pleasant occasion, if rather too self-congratulatory.

But that's always the trouble with awards. They end up being about the vanity of the givers instead of the achievements of the recipients.

And I bet this time next year there won't be a single mention of the Sovremennik Theatre.


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