“If Chekhov was writing today, I hope he’d be working with us,” says Henry Normal, managing director of the television production company Baby Cow.
It’s an intriguing statement. The small matter of mortality prevents Anton Chekhov from writing today but, even if the great Russian writer had managed to live until he was 150 years old, would Baby Cow be his natural outlet? We associate Chekhov with his handful of masterpieces, brilliant studies of heartache and frustration that have achieved a hallowed position in the dramatic canon. Baby Cow, meanwhile, produces popular television comedy in the UK: recent shows include the Bafta-winning Gavin & Stacey and The Mighty Boosh.
Not natural bedfellows, you might think. But Normal begs to differ. He is keen to celebrate Chekhov’s comic genius: the works that home in on those same human frailties but in outright comic vein. Normal has unearthed four one-act plays and handed them to the sort of high-profile comic actors more usually associated with stand-up or sitcom. On Sunday night Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook kick off a season of Chekhov shorts that also includes performances by Steve Coogan, Mathew Horne, Sheridan Smith, Julian Barratt and Julia Davis. They are screened on Sky Arts 2 HD to celebrate Chekhov’s 150th anniversary.
“I don’t think it is a departure from what we usually do,” says Normal. “Something like The Bear, even given that it was written 100 years ago, is a good stab at a dark sitcom of today.”
Comedy runs through Chekhov’s major plays, too, but these short plays use it more directly. They lack the subtlety and scope of the full-length dramas but they still essentially focus on people who feel trapped and unfulfilled and on whose feelings we eavesdrop as they hit a moment of crisis.
Steve Coogan’s character in The Dangers of Tobacco is supposed to be delivering a lecture on the evils of smoking but cannot stop himself digressing on to domestic irritations. Soon he is unravelling in front of his audience, lamenting his miserable marriage and his lack of advancement. “I’m afraid I haven’t been much success at anything,” he admits. And in The Proposal, a nervy hypochondriac (Mathew Horne) visits his neighbour (Sheridan Smith) with the intention of proposing to her but keeps getting sidetracked by petty arguments.
It is in the gap between the characters’ intentions and their achievements that the potential for comedy emerges. They get dragged off course by their own grievances, frailties and worries. Each of them has an exaggerated self-image that is at odds with reality. The irony is perhaps most heightened in A Reluctant Tragic Hero, in which Johnny Vegas plays a henpecked husband who visits a friend and unburdens his feelings in a lengthy tirade – to his friend’s growing dismay.
But while this is amusing, it is also poignant. “This is not a comedy, it’s a tragedy,” bellows Vegas’s character. The man is absurd but he is also in torment. This is, perhaps, where the point of the comic casting lies. It is through paying attention to the comedy that a cast can reveal the pain in the plays. That is certainly Normal’s view. “I think in all comedy there’s tragedy,” he says. “Essentially, comedy is about human failings. And all the best comedy plays on the idea that if we didn’t laugh, we would cry.”
For Mathew Horne, this is the joy of the part. Horne is best known for playing Gavin, the straight role in Gavin & Stacey, but in The Proposal he is the comic lead. As the fastidious would-be suitor, he reveals a nice line in twitchy paranoia, fiddling with his ghastly tan-coloured suit. But though he says his performance was “slightly heightened”, he thinks the kernel of the part is recognisable.
“The stakes are really high for these characters,” he says. “That’s what’s beautiful about the writing. And that heightens the comedy – you have to play the truth before you can get a laugh ... I think I am more in touch with him, in terms of his personality, than any other character I’ve played.”
Horne admits that “getting the tone right was the hardest thing”. And for Christine Gernon, the director, finding the right pitch for the plays was a particular challenge. Gernon, who has directed successful television comedies such as Absolutely Fabulous, One Foot in the Grave and Gavin & Stacey, wanted to do the plays “as if they had been written now”. “Chekhov’s eye for human nature is amazing,” she says. “And human nature doesn’t change.”
The cameras stay close to the action and the performances are vivid. But the plays were not written for the screen: they stick to one room, are verbally dense, physically static and start at a high pitch. This proved tricky. “There’s no set-up here at all,” says Gernon. “You don’t know who these people are or where they are. Somebody’s in a room. Somebody else comes in. They just walk in and start talking – and that’s it for the rest of the play.”
There is something slightly stagey about the plays that the productions, shot on one set in a studio, don’t try to disguise. But in a sense that suits them: they emerge as intense little sketches that cut straight to the chase.
James Hunt, head of programming for Sky Arts, thinks that, while “the colours are quite intense”, the plays offer intriguing glimpses of life at the time: “You can see what’s going on in the class structure and in battles over land.”
For Sky Arts, the Chekhov dramas fit with a desire to do innovative and surprising projects that are accessible. They follow on from Playhouse Live, an initiative that features broadcasts of live performances of new plays.
“Doing the first live theatre on television for years and doing Chekhov, we know there’s an appetite for this kind of programming,” says Hunt.
There does seem to be an audience for screenings of classic drama: take the popularity of National Theatre Live, which beams live performances from London stages to cinema screens worldwide. But there is the question of how best to handle stage plays on screen: whether to adapt them, for instance, or film them on location. Hunt acknowledges the challenges but declares an “appetite and ambition to do bigger dramas”.
Normal echoes this enthusiasm. “I remember in the early 1970s there were a lot of good plays on television,” he says. “And I don’t know why we feel that we can’t do them any more. There are whole generations of people who have not seen great plays. I was looking at The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui the other day and it’s a great play and relevant in any age. You don’t get a play like that on television nowadays – but I think people would respond.”
He intends, he says, to do more. But for now his pleasure lies in delivering a little Chekhov with a twist. “It’s lovely to think that we’re helping to make accessible these things that might otherwise be lost.”
‘Chekhov: Comedy Shorts’ starts on Sunday at 9pm on Sky Arts 2; www.sky.com/arts