Chekhov expressed some disappointment when his work was taken to be a catalogue of human misery. He apparently thought it was a bit of a hoot. Or at least, that there was some hooting to be done along the way. It was certainly a canny idea on the part of Henry Normal to cast such comedy big-hitters as Johnny Vegas, Sheridan Smith and Steve Coogan to star in Chekhov: Comedy Shorts which will doubtless be seen as a bit of a coup for Sky Arts.
Airing the man’s shorts, as it were, does present problems. Most obviously, he didn’t write sitcoms. He wrote for living, breathing theatre, with all the firing of synapses and pheromones that entails — not to mention the liberties and possibilities of staging. Television opens up possibilities, too, but to trap the performance in a 1970s version of a 19th-century lookalike set seems to confirm it as antique and moribund, and besides, all that cloying Victoriana detail is distracting.
However, there’s a pleasing tension between the familiar household names — with whom we mistakenly believe we have some sort of pally relationship — and the old-fangled, faded references of Chekhov’s sketches. The TV doyens appeared to be having fun, in a let’s play grown-ups kind of way: you could almost hear the quotation marks curling around some of the lines.
At other times the delivery seemed oddly flat: the habitual underplayed patter of Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh) tended to err on the side of wood, though he did perk up a bit when sparring with “real-life partner” Julia Davis. Steve Coogan had no-one to feed off but himself in his one-hander, ostensibly a lecture on the evils of tobacco, but actually a long digression on the evils of marriage. The lecture format translates to telly neatly, and at least Chekhov is released from the amber drawing room. Coogan himself looks the picture of disappointment: mouth welded in a downturn, unkempt hair, it’s Alan Partridge with ten years of suffering behind him and the “aha” ground out of his lexicon.
Vegas does Chekhov like he does everything else and it works rather well. With no concessions to time and place, some of his rants — on tenors, for example who “attack the central nervous system” — might have been his own; in this he is helped by a peppy translation from Paul Schmitt, who freely introduces words like “creep” and “bugger”. Vegas has a muzzle built for latent tragedy, a knobbly root vegetable with a twinkle in the eye that looks as if it might turn teary at any moment; he wheezes and blusters at Mackenzie Crook with the hoarse whine of an artillery bombardment. Crook, as Vegas has pointed out, has a face you just want to shout at and merely has to look riven and pointy to Vegas’s massy tuber.
And it’s quite funny. Maybe not roll on the floor laughing funny, but still. There is wry humour in the running joke (or running sore) of the battle of the sexes; Coogan’s off-stage wife calls him, among other pet sobriquets, Satan. Matthew Horne and Sheridan Smith are on fine form as they repeatedly derail a marriage proposal by arguing about who owns what and who has the best dog. And it’s the men who get the vapours, pass out, and have nameless nervous complaints.
Barratt’s Smírnoff is almost Petruchio-like in his disdain for the female of the species, who has, apparently, the soul of a crocodile and the brain of a pigeon. He gets his come-uppance as he falls in love, à coup foudre, with his widowed debtor. There are mock-Shakespearean echoes in Vegas’s character, too, as he howls out Othello’s “blood, Iago, blood!” in response to his exhausting schedule of matrimonial errands and tasks. Some of this could have been written yesterday: who hasn’t asked their significant other to just pick up a few things while they were in town?
Our enjoyment seems predicated, somehow, on familiarity with the performers, and perhaps the biggest joke is that these light entertainment types are doing Chekhov at all. This stunt does rely on a knowledge of their back catalogue, a sense that they have more jokes in their rear pockets. The comedians prove wholly capable of doing Chekhov’s light and dark; but next time, spring him from the parlour and shake him up a bit, like they do in the world of 3D that he called theatre.