- Presented by Stephen Mitchell Theatre Productions Limited at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
- May 1968
Character: Nicolay Von Koren.
PETER as Nicolay Von Koren
The action takes place in the house of Samoylenko and Laevsky at a resort on the Caucasian Coast of the Black Sea, in the autumn of 1891.
It never ceases to amaze me how many of Anton Checkov’s languid 19th Century musings find their echo in the clamour of the present day. Watching his eloquent creations eat out their hearts and act out their dilemmas on stage takes on an almost narcissistic fascination, like watching our modern malaise reflected in an elegantly gilded, slightly dusty mirror.
I must confess, however, to a total and lamentable ignorance of the Checkov novel on which Jack Holton Bell had based ‘The Duel’. Therefore, with all the fewer trees with which to see the wood, I could judge it on it only on its theatrical entity in itself. No side-tracking round the proscenium to check whether or not the author remains faithful to his originals. And as a play, it hit me as a thing of unmistakable beauty and striking relevance.
The beauty, of course, flows from the Checkov flavour of the piece – a flavour faithfully re-created by the author and given the subtle stillness of ominously oppressive heat by director, Norman Marshall. I got a feeling of a mood crystallized before it crumbled to dust; an autumn leaf caught in full beauty just before the point of irrevocable decay.
Thunder rumbles occasionally off stage. We are at the magnificently clear point of time before the storm breaks. The play’s theme tangles around love and violence as a means to an end. It is a poignant essay in human folly and human aspirations; what is probable and what is possible. Couched in those generous yet gently mocking terms in which Checkov saw his fellow creatures, it made irresistible viewing.
So many direct parallels with the immediate past. For instance, isn’t it our own society – alarmed and shaken at its own freedoms, sickened at its own permissiveness – equally willing to find a Nicolay Von Korden in its midst? This crusading botanist preaching his scientific tyranny; haven’t we heard his poisonous logic before? Pre-1939? Don’t some – even good liberal souls such as Deacon Pobyedov here – flirt dangerously with its persuasive strength as a welcome relief from all the indecision and greyness around us now?
Only hours before I saw a recording of this play, I’d seen some archive film footage from the Seventies and one hitherto rational fellow human being uttered the statement: “Student demonstrators! They ought to shoot a few. That would stop all the violence!” The speaker probably imagined himself as deeply entrenched on the side of law and order as Von Koren does when he speaks out so passionately and persuasively against the freedom of individuals to follow their individuality. His damnation of the play’s tortured lovers for their anarchy of emotion was a tremendous feat of twisted truths.
PETER made out of it a towering piece of theatre, as he did with the whole role. Small wonder watching his handsome menace, that André Laevsky, the object of his passionate loathing: “Tomorrow the world will be run by men like him; and we will be the ones who put him in power.”
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