- Presented by Stephen Mitchell Theatre Productions Limited at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
- May 1968
Character: Nicolay Von Koren.
The action takes place in the house of Alex Samoylenko and André Laevsky at a resort on the Caucasian Coast of the Black Sea, in the Autumn of 1891.
Anton Chekov didn’t pen many plays, although those he did write became extremely popular on Forties and Fifties radio, and in the Sixties on television. All did remarkably well – perhaps because these were the mediums that the author would’ve used at the time of writing if they’d been available to him. Short stories are often themselves well suited to forms of restraint. Director and adapters, it would seem, were drawn to Chekov’s work because of the apparent ease in which the playwright could make an otherwise inert situation glow with interest.
⇐ PETER as Nickolay Von Koran
When it came to the theatre, however, it was a different matter. Unoriginal as it may be to say so, if Chekhov had wanted his (longer) short story, ‘The Duel’, to have been a play, he’d surely have written a play. And this production showcased at the Duke of York’s by an Iowan PhD, Jack Holton Dell, whilst a capable job, makes it all the clearer that Chekhov was right.
In the open scenes the typically Chekhovian characters and ingredients are all there – at least on the surface. A gauze backdrop representing a heaving stretch of the Black Sea coast rises to reveal a proverbial summer residence; its windows and doors thrown open to catch the breeze.
We now find ourselves in a Caucasian resort in the long hot summer of 1891. Here, in a sleepy and specific moment of time, where the cross-currents of lives which had been gently slumbering are about to be awoken.
There’s Alex Samoylenko (James Hayter) – a laid-back and welcoming ex-military physician, played by James Hayter; Marya Konstentine (Elspeth March), a hectoring and tightly-corseted matron, her husband and daughter, Katya (Janet Hannington), plus the self-important officer, Igor Kirilin (John J. Carney), who fancies his chances with the young lady.
In addition, we have Atchmianov (Anthony Watkins) – a draper, and Pobyedov (Lewis Fiander), an likable virginal deacon. Also into this provincial backwater, the author throws in three interlopers: André Laevsky (Michael Bryant) – a liberal arts graduate, who is pining for his hometown of Moscow and Nadya Federovna (Nyree Dawn Porter) – whom he’s been involved with for several years. And as if for good measure, there’s Nickolay Von Koren (PETER WYNGARDE) – a German Marine Biologist with Nietzschean-Nazi ideals about the future of the race, and who has spent the summer on the Black Sea studying the development of the jelly fish.
Naydya, it occurs, is a married woman – only her husband is dead, tho’ her lover hasn’t
got around to telling her yet. The two have been on the run for two years, and now as he reaches a high point of frustration with the affair, she takes other lovers and run up a series of debts at Atchmianov’s shop. Together the two have caused a public scandal by “fornicating” in the Black Sea waters.
(From left to right): PETER, James Hayter as Alex Samoylenko and Lewis Liander as Deacon Pobyedov ⇒
Thunder rumbles occasionally off stage, which signifies that we’re at the wonderfully clear point of time before the storm breaks. The play’s theme tangles around love and violence as a means to an end. It’s a affecting essay in human foolishness and objectives; in other words, what is probable and what is possible. Expressed in those generous yet mildly scornful terms in which Chekhov saw his fellow man, it made appealing viewing.
The play produced so many unswerving similarities with the immediate past. For instance, isn’t it our own society – distressed and dazed by its own freedoms, disgusted at its own liberalism – that is correspondingly keen to find a Nicolay Von Korden within its number? This campaigning botanist, preaching his scientific tyranny; haven’t we heard his deadly 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 indecisiveness and gloom around us now?
The splendour, of course, flows from the Chekhov essence of the piece – a flavour faithfully re-created by the author and given the understated quietness of portentously repressive emotion by director, Norman Marshall. I got a feeling of a mood preserved moments before it crumbled to dust; like an autumn leaf caught in full beauty just before its irreversible decay.
It never ceases to amaze me how many of Anton Chekhov’s unhurried 19th Century reflections find their echo in the commotion of the present day. Watching his expressive creations eat out their hearts and act out their predicaments on stage takes on an almost self-absorbed fascination, like watching our modern condition reflected in a stylishly gilt, but slightly grubby mirror.
I must admit, though, to a complete and inexcusable ignorance of the Chekhov novel on which Jack Holton Dell had based ‘The Duel’. Consequently, with all the fewer trees with which to see the wood, I was able to judge it on the theatrical entity in itself. No side-tracking round to check whether or not the author had remained true to the original. And as a play, it hit me as a thing of unique splendour and arresting significance.
⇐ An original poster from the Duke of York’s Theatre
Only hours before I saw a recording of this play, I’d watched 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 doubtless imagined himself as deeply rooted on the side of law and order as Nickolay Von Koren does when he speaks out so fervently and convincingly against the freedom of individuals to follow their individuality. His damnation of André Laevsky and Nadya Federovna for their chaotic emotions was a tremendous feat of twisted truths.
PETER made out of it a towering piece of theatre, as he did with the whole role. It was little wonder watching his handsome menace, that Laevsky, the object of his fervent hate, says: “Tomorrow the world will be run by men like him; and we will be the ones who put him in power.”
There were, however, a number of questions and puzzlements with which I was left. For instance: after the Deacon has illustrated the virtues of light through love, Von Koren on his world of superior men, and Madam Konstantine on the dangers of moral corruption, there is an abusive argument between Laevsky and Von Koran, but no apparent reason is given for the subsequent duel, during which Laevsky is shot in the neck. All we get is a blackout! That’s it.
We’re told that Laevsky and Nadya are to be married. Why? Has the Deacon, who had been seen as a religious buffoon, now become a considerable spiritual authority? Had the bullet from Von Koren’s pistol, perchance, softened Laevsky’s brain? Or might the scientists’ assault on his character compelled him, shuddering and quaking, into the obsessional arms of Nadya? He is, we’re invited to believe, a changed man, but are provided no real reason why.
Perhaps Chekhov’s translation is clearer in the original story, but it was most certainly a serious flaw in the play.
TRIVIA… PETER was appearing in ‘The Duel’ when he signed to play Jason King in the new ITC series, ‘Department S’. He’d grown the now famous moustache – based on the 19th Century Russian style – for the part of Nickolay Von Koren, and decided to keep it to play King.
⇑showing amendments and additions in his own hand.
⇐ This is a copy of an supplementary sheet that was added to PETER’s script to help with the pronunciation of certain Russian names and words.
How much would you pay to see PETER live on stage?
Prices for admission to ‘The Duel’ were as follows:
Stalls: 30/-, 20/-, 16/- (£1.50, £1.00, 80p)
Dress Circle: 30/-, 20/- (£1.50, £1.00)
Upper Circle: 12/6 (approx 63p)
Gallery: 3/- (15p)
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