Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Fourteen and the Highlights- 6 June 2004

(By the time of the Russian part of our Chekhov Carver trip, we'd already had a week-long work in progress working with the actors on the stories by both writers and some staging solutions to the ideas arising from our regular development meetings. Margaret and I had been meeting on a weekly basis developing the plot outline in some detail, based on a very basic structure that had emerged soon after our American trip. We also decided on the name of the play - Kaput! - and were working towards a launch event which would happen on the day of the 100th anniversary of Chekhov's death - 2 July 2004. We envisaged that on this day we would have the actors read Carver's story Errand, in which he imagined Chekhov's death, around a long table for invited guests, members of the press and promoters. I also suggested that we might serve some nibbles and a cocktail we would call Chekhov-Cava - or maybe even Chava! - and our Marketing Director Richard Bliss came with an excellent recipe for it involving some vodka. 

However, at that stage, we were still a long way away from what would eventually become Kaput! - an idea of which you can get here:

A more detailed account of how we eventually got there can be found on: 

and a review of the piece on:

The photos connected to this trip were taken by Neil Murray, unless otherwise indicated).

Sunday, 06 June 2004


Breakfast at the Sovyetski for the last time.

Coffee and money session with Tanya on the balcony, which goes very well.

A long goodbye with Tanya in front of the hotel.

And that’s it...

At the airport, I struggle to remember the Russian word for ‘abacus’ as Neil’s bag gets intercepted by the staff on X-Ray machines. I mime counting, she looks at us as though we’re strange but harmless and eventually lets us through.

And, oh, Neil threw his cigarettes out as soon as we landed in Newcastle and has never lit up since (apparently). As for the smell of smoke on his clothes, he’ll just tell everybody it was because he spent two weeks in the presence of a chain-smoker. Or even two.



Favourite Moments in St Petersburg


-       The ambience in The Restaurant

-       Going to lunch with Pasha

-       The run-down alleys of the Dostoyevski Tour


-       Passing the Cathedral of the Spilt Blood on the boat

-       The babushkas in the Hermitage

-       Arriving at the theatre for Uncle Vanya


-       The midnight tour of St Petersburg

-       Doing the Hermitage in 9 min 45 sec

-       Pasha (any moment)



Favourite Yalta Moments


-       The completely crazy waitress by the seaside

-       Chekhov’s garden

-       Chekhov’s bedroom with his canvas travelling bag hanging on the wall


-       The moment we walked into the first dining room in Chekhov’s house

-       Touching Chekhov’s desk

-       The walk through Yalta


-       Working on Neil’s balcony

-       Working out the characters’ star-signs while walking through a garden with Margaret

-       Walking around the church in the Romanoffs Palace


Favourite Moscow moments


-       Buying the icon at the flea market

-       The gardener at Melihovo resting

-       The granny in the Chekhov museum (in her big shoes and jumper)


-       Dinner at Tanya’s

-       Everyone chewing toffees at Melihovo

-       Negotiating the metro

-       Champagne at the hotel reception

-       Working on the balcony

-       The Novodevichy

-       Moments in Moscow Choir


-       The champagne reception

-       The adventure with Neil and Max

-       Accidentally filming the chestnut tree blossom at the Novodevichy


Favourite Moments from Plays


- Platonov fanning himself with a cabbage leaf

- The snake dance in Platonov 

- Set for Uncle Vanya


- Platonov: ‘Let me get better and I’ll seduce you.’



- A pair of shoes in the Seagull

- All of Platonov 




Most Moving Moments (general)

-       Seeing Pasha waiting for us

-       The intense excitement in the Maly theatre 

-       Pasha and Tanya taking us to the Siege Museum

-       Lunch in the Blinny place

-       The cemetery wall with urn boxes and scratched portraits at Novodevichy

-       Generosity of spirit in Yalta

-       The granny with big shoes in the Chekhov Museum



For the end I have a mathematical problem for you (in honour of the skills which we have acquired or honed on this trip):


Margaret and Duska bought two bottles of perfume at the Duty Free. Margaret’s perfume cost 68 euros or (2412,09 roubles) and Duska’s perfume cost 51 euros (or 1809,07 roubles).

Margaret contributed 236 roubles in cash and Duska contributed 940,60 roubles in cash towards the price of both bottles of perfume and the rest was charged to Duska’s credit card.

When Duska got her statement she found that £69,20 was charged to her account in this transaction.


How many £ exactly has Duska spent in this transaction and how many £ has Margaret spent in this transaction?






The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Thirteen - 5 June 2004

The Flea Market and Tanya’s Dinner Party


Having overslept this morning, by the time I come down everybody’s had breakfast already and Neil is chatting to young Igor – one of Tanya’s private English students who she sent to us to escort us around the flea market and practise his English. We introduce ourselves and Neil says – 'Guess what, Igor works at the Mayerhold Museum and he travels a lot and he’s been to London and guess what he's seen!? – Phantom in the Opera, that’s the only show he saw in London!'. We invite him to Newcastle.


After a bit of a confusion with Margaret looking for me and me looking for her, and me quickly getting a glass of fruit juice off the breakfast table, we finally set off. It’s a wonderful, sunny day. Igor is a bit timid and his conversation exercise is slowly diminishing. By the time we get into the metro he’s reading a book. In Russian.


We have to pay to get into the flea market. In the process of making my lists I’ve also made a communal shopping list. Margaret wants a polished stone necklace and a present for Claire and Neil wants a lot of interesting obscure objects as well as various presents. I don’t have any particular wishes in relation to the flea market as my own shopping list was mainly to do with films and books.


I think we spent something like 2-3 hours walking around endless stalls (also watching some bears for a while entertaining the shoppers from behind a fence) and examining and trying on various items. Margaret finds her necklace quite quickly and it has dead insects in it, and it’s at least 50 years old and the stall keeper says to us: ‘Look at me, I’m serious, I’m serious – it’s really good’. Most stall keepers are fully conversant in a number of languages anyway, so Igor just does his own browsing and occasionally keeps an eye on us.


By the end of our shopping trips we end up with the following items:


Margaret: necklace, shawl, chess set, and a number of small gifts

Neil: icon (which we’re all envious of), wooden toys, knitted socks and gloves for Rosie, abacus (!), a map of some obscure region, various cards, Soviet memorabilia and similar curious objects

Duska: mink scarf and a ‘silver’ belt from Afghanistan (both by the decision of the jury that they really suited me and that I should really get them), icon, postcards (including a photograph of the MHAT members with Stanislavski and Chekhov among them)


We display all of these in front of Tanya as soon as we arrive so to get her verdict, and she reckons we’ve done well. Then we take a tour of Tanya’s neat and airy tower-block apartment, with most amazing family photographs and even more amazing works of art created by her grandmother. In Soviet times, when she couldn’t get any paints, Tanya’s grandma put together little pieces of cloth of different colours and designs and created some mind-blowing ‘still lives’ and ‘landscapes’. We keep discovering these all over the flat and eventually settle at the kitchen table next to the grandma’s painting of 'some chickens’.


The kitchen is quite small but everything is at arm’s length and Tanya has prepared a hundred-course meal. She’s also invited a theatre director Sergei Zhenovach with whom she’s worked intensely as an interpreter and whose work she adores. He is a sweet man and we have a very lively afternoon talking about theatre and Chekhov and life – mostly through Tanya.


At some point Tanya’s husband Volodya – who is also a very witty non-English speaker – tries to tell us a story of his high school IT teacher. Tanya asks him to clarify what he’s saying, then translates. So, this teacher tried to explain the difference between maths and information technology by saying –.... and then an amusing marital communication breakdown ensues. They argue and Tanya comments to us: ‘He’s just asked me to translate something and then he changed his mind, he says it doesn’t matter!’ We find this utterly hilarious from both ends of the language barrier. Then Volodya makes his point: the teacher quoted the first line of Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog to illustrate how there was much more information than words in this sentence.


He also tells us a story of a guy who got photographed with Lenin as a little boy and then grew to resemble Lenin himself, so eventually started offering to others to get photographed with him - mirroring the same positions. This comes across more effortlessly and to an equally enthusiastic reception, but Tanya has had enough and disappears to try and get us a recipe for cabbage pie by talking to someone on the phone (which goes on for ever). Meanwhile we try to communicate between ourselves (and the fact that we’ve consumed quite a bit of vodka helps to an extent). Sergei tries to explain to me that Chekhov really liked gooseberries and therefore wrote the story of the same title. We say we know the story, but we wonder how gooseberry jam is made? At that point Tanya returns to the table and says: ‘Don’t tell me you want a recipe for gooseberry jam as well!?’ We say – no, we just want to know what Chekhov enjoyed about it. The Russians then proceed to explain to us how this is not really jam but just ‘varennie’. Something that you have small spoonfuls of while drinking tea. I recognize this ritual as something that we do at home, which basically amounts to sampling small amounts of fruit preserve (with the fruit often having been cooked whole or in chunky pieces in a sugar syrup).


Tanya then declares that we should try and get ready-made pastry if we want to make this cabbage pie because the pastry sounds very complicated, and then she gives us the recipe and I take notes:


‘Pirog s Kapustoi’ or ‘Kapustnii Pirog’

                  (Cabbage Pie)

-       chop cabbage (or two cabbages)

-       boil in water for 5 minutes

-       drain

-       add butter

-       add cream (enough to cover bottom of pot)

-       add salt

-       put back on fire and let liquid evaporate

-       cabbage should still be al dente

-       add 2 boiled eggs (chopped)

-       add pepper

-       when spreading cabbage on the pastry, add butter

-       cover with another pastry layer and bake


[As for the pastry it should consist of 250gr margarine (melted), ½ l warm milk, 1 sachet of dry yeast, 1 tablespoon (flat) salt, 1 tablespoon (flat) sugar, 2 eggs (beaten), 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1kg flour.] 


We explain to the other puzzled guests that we want to make a cabbage pie for our 2 July event. Volodya comments that that would really make the audience remember Chekhov forever. We laugh.


When everybody has dispersed and we’re waiting for our taxi (this time we’ve asked Tanya to double-check how much it should cost and she claims between 250-300 roubles) we are again looking at our new acquisitions. Neil’s map of an obscure Soviet region prompts Tanya to tell us a story about someone she once met and also simultaneously prompts Volodya to show us pictures of architecture from that region. Meanwhile Neil is marvelling at his abacus and wondering how it is used. Volodya tells us via Tanya that there is an entire science on how to use an abacus. At that moment our taxi arrives and we say quick goodbyes. Volodya walks us down to our taxi and is telling me about how when the first Russian cosmonauts went into space there was an entire army of mathematicians working on abacuses. I no longer know when to take him seriously, but we are sure to remember both him and Tanya and them as a couple fondly, for a very long time.


As we drive back, Neil is keeping an eye on the watch (we were told if it takes him less than half hour to get us through the city it should be just 250 roubles). Margaret and I are arranging our multitude of impressions. When we arrive at the hotel, it’s been exactly 27 minutes. The driver asks for 450 roubles. Out of frustration and anger and the taxi-driver’s wound to our budget the other day, I suddenly speak up in Russian and say to him that we were told it should be 250 for under half an hour and no more than 350. He does budge and we come out triumphant.


However, that’s not the end of it. Even though Margaret thought she had enough money to last her till tomorrow (and we can’t take roubles out of the country), it turns out that she has spent up and needs more cash. So I go to the hotel’s ‘bankomat’ but at the last minute it suddenly goes faulty on me. I ask a concierge what I should do and he tells me that there is another bankomat opposite the hotel on the corner. I come back to the table and ask Neil to accompany me as it’s dark. So we come out and see the bank and walk all around it – but no bankomat. We go back in, grab another concierge who is minding the door of the Yar Restaurant and looking very bored (as there is the wedding party number 112 since our arrival going on in the hotel). He has an infectiously calm demeanour and is quite chatty as he explains that he also knows that there should be a bankomat across the road. He offers to take us there. So we all go back again, but no luck. He says he knows some others but we’d have to go in a taxi and it should cost no more than 200 roubles. We go back to inform Margaret that we are having to go on – what Neil ominously calls – ‘another adventure’. Meanwhile Max is chatting to a taxi driver outside who looks really grumpy. We say to Max it’s very nice of him to be doing this for us and he says:


‘Let me tell you a Jewish joke:


There is this man who has a daughter who is not married.

One day a guy comes to this man and says:

-       Oh, congratulations, you married your daughter off!

The man says:

-       What do you mean?

-       Oh, I just saw your daughter and she is holding a baby and the baby is eating milk from her breast.

-       Oh, well, if you have some time, and if you have milk, why not do a good deed!?’


Neil laughs immediately, but it takes me a while to put this together in my head in my present state.


Anyway, so Max is arguing with the taxi driver trying to talk him into taking us there and back for 100 roubles. We wonder what’s going on. Then Max turns around slightly disappointed and says: ‘He’ll only do it for 200 roubles.’

We say: ‘No, that’s fine, that’s perfectly all right, let’s go! Can you come with us?’

‘Yes, but I must go and check with my manager’

So we are standing there with the grumpy taxi driver, thinking this probably means we have to tip Max as well.


Max re-emerges followed by his efficient sounding manager who says to us: ‘The bankomat is just there just across the car park, the far corner across from here.’


We thank them and proceed to walk across the car park leaving the taxi driver in an even worse mood. We are saying, ‘well he was probably bored at work, but how sweet’ etc. When suddenly we hear a muffled voice behind us. I go week at the knees again, thinking, here we go again.


We turn around and it’s Max again: ‘My manager sent me to accompany you.’


Relieved we start chatting to Max about his English which is very good, and how long he’s been working here and so on. On the way back we’re so chummy that we’re on the brink of inviting Max over to Newcastle, but we apparently receive a funny look from one of his female colleagues and he politely excuses himself saying he has to get back to work. We ask him whether we can give him a tip or get him a drink, and he says – no, it’s part of his job, and it was his pleasure.

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Twelve - 4 June 2004

Melihovo, Shopping, and Minor Joys and Disasters


Tanya has hired a driver to take us to a village called Melihovo, some 100km outside of Moscow. Chekhov bought a dacha/house in the village after selling some rights to his writing and set up a doctor’s practice in there.


Half way down to Melihovo we take a break at the kind of ‘service station’ that is by now almost certainly extinct. We’re sitting in a tiny gazebo we found here looking at a café/bar that looks like a shed and a petrol station that doesn’t look like anything at all. It feels like we are definitely leaving the civilisation by now, but nothing can quite prepare us for what we actually find in Melihovo itself. Intensely rural, the place would probably have been completely inaccessible had it not have been for Chekhov’s famous home. At the entrance to the museum’s gardens there is a blown up quote by Chekhov from one of his letters where he’s inviting people to come and visit him. There is also a small kiosk selling relevant souvenirs, including blue pencils with Chekhov’s name on (which Margaret is particularly keen on).


We’re greeted here by an eccentric, verbose and bordering-on-annoying director of the museum who introduces himself as a writer and absolutely insists that we must bring our show to a festival that he organises every year here in May. He quickly takes us across the gardens (at one moment prostrating himself across a massive tree that ‘Chekhov planted with his own hands’) and around a small servants’ house and kitchen. We are immediately taken in by the dusty and informal appeal of this place and would like to stay in the kitchen for much longer, but he hurries us on because he wants to hand us over to a young ‘babushka’ and go into a meeting. There are flies buzzing around our heads as we go through Chekhov’s little house overlooking a tiny lake (Margaret informs us that he was very happy here because ‘he could fish out of his bedroom window’). There is none of that Moscovite or even Yaltaesque preciousness about this museum at all. They show us what they’ve got with a nice mixture of reverence and informality but they are completely focused on our experience of Chekhov’s world rather than their own reverence for it. We all enjoy this trip immensely and derive a lot of personal pleasure from it.


When we’ve finished the tour of the house, the babushkas let us out into the gardens to do whatever we like and Margaret gives them a box of English toffee. So we wander around the gardens. There is even a gazebo here – which was actually part of a set of some production of The Seagull. The Seagull itself was also written in a tiny little building in the garden which is closed at the moment. I am convinced from the word ‘go’ that this is the kind of place that our character Sasha’s dacha might be like.


We watch a security guard strolling around, and women in curiously sparkly tops digging the garden, and carrying vessels of water from somewhere – watering the plants, and their children running around the museum gardens, their mouths all full of sticky English toffee by now. (It also occurs to me that the Russians are consistently unashamed of working – we’ve even seen people at work within the splendour of Peterhof – they are cleaning and polishing and digging and watering at all times).  


Eventually we join Margaret who is sitting on a bench facing a veranda of the house (a site of a famous photograph of Chekhov with his dog). She says she got very emotional earlier on. Neil says he’s been bitten by insects and – even though he ridiculed our decision to buy an insect repellent before we set off – he now demands some anti-bite cream. Margaret says she doesn’t have it here, she’ll give it to him when we get to the hotel. Neil says – 'by the time we get to the hotel his arm might have to be amputated!'


On our way out we plan to slip out without saying goodbye to the director. However, the little shop is closed and we do need someone to sell us the pencils and other things. So I give Tanya my business card to leave for him and pass on our thanks as she goes to ask for a shop assistant. However, our plan falls through because he comes back rattling at full speed and giving us the details of the contract concerning our participation in his festival. He asks what the show’s title is. We say – Kaput! He goes quiet for a moment and asks what it is about? I try to answer. He explains the word ‘kaput’ is only associated with WW2 and the Germans around here and suggests that we should rename the show for Russian purposes, that perhaps we should call it ‘Slom’. I like ‘slom’, there is the same word in Serbian meaning ‘a break-down’, but Tanya says afterwards that it wouldn’t be a good word to use in Russian because of some connotations she couldn’t quite pinpoint.


Having finally got rid of the pestilence called ‘Melihovo’s Director’ and having bought our trinkets, we go across the road to a small shop to buy coffee and sandwiches. It is a less than pleasant experience, the shop keeper not being used to such traffic all at once with such difficult requirements, and getting a bit pissed off as a result. All the while, our taxi driver is waiting for us patiently, making notes in his little notebook.


The journey back has us all in a relatively good mood, full of impressions. We’re deciding whether to go to the hotel or into town – I’ve been wanting to go to a bookshop and Neil’s been wanting to go to an Art Nouveau supermarket that Tanya pointed out to us the other day. We settle for a bookshop first.


When we arrive to the place where the driver has been asked to drop us off, we’re all profoundly shocked when we get the bill. Tanya has made enquiries in advance and given us a quote which we budgeted around, but the fare comes to more than twice what we expected. Margaret and I get out of the car. Speechless. I’m thinking this would never happen with Pasha! Shortly we’re joined by Tanya who tries to lift our spirits, unsuccessfully. Finally Neil, the ‘banker’ emerges with a look of someone who’s just been robbed.


So Tanya explains to us how to get back on the metro when we’ve finished shopping and disappears. We wander pensively through a relatively big but quite a dense store. I’m unsuccessfully looking through theatre books and videos and fairytales. There is nothing of particular interest here. We all buy postcards of the Moscow metro (which by the way is truly stunning!) and I do find some fairytales eventually.       


The Art Nouveau in its full glory brings any known supermarket to its knees. We’re in a much better mood as we walk through air conditioned lanes in between colourful shelves and aquariums and rows of expensive chocolates. Neil declares this feels very ‘New York’ and then clarifies that he expected to see supermarkets with rotten apples in Russia. We pick a couple of small items to take through the check out, but once through, the spell is broken and we are once again reminded of our financial disaster. We are torn between the desire to take a taxi back and the necessity to suffer going through the metro on our own. I volunteer to take care of getting us to the hotel safely and breathe a sigh of relief when we finally negotiate all the challenges of Moscow metro and emerge out of the doors of our – Dynamo – station. The only problem is, once we come out, we don’t recognize anything. We only ever took a metro in the mornings when the place was heaving with makeshift stalls, and now it’s completely empty and unrecognizable. Neil begins to panic. Then Margaret and I begin to panic too. So tantalisingly close to home, and we don’t know where to go. So I walk to a taxi rank and ask in my broken Russian which direction the hotel is in? They gesture and we go that way only to find out that the station entrance that we actually do recognize is a 100m down the road.   


Over dinner we discuss strategies of dealing with Tanya’s expenses and the remaining money in the ‘float’. Neil has been worrying about and bringing up the ‘float’ almost every day since day one. Now for once we’re all deeply worried about it. We’re also worried about the fact that Tanya has invited us for dinner tomorrow which means that we probably won’t be able to talk to her about the issue until Sunday morning. So we just leave it temporarily and get on with talking about the actual play.


Meanwhile a cocky waiter who surprised us the other evening by remembering what we usually have to drink comes to take our order and makes a big display of not taking any notes.


We’re discussing our character Olga’s eating habits in terms of a narrative strand. Up until now we’ve mainly been discussing who would be playing Olga. Margaret is very keen on an actress who appeared at Live once before, but Neil didn’t like her much when he met her briefly. By now, Neil is coming round to the idea. So Olga chews on paper in the first act in a moment of eccentricity, but this is never pursued in the rest of the play. I think that in the second act she should be introduced to the American wonder called the ‘chewing gum’. For the third – bedroom-act -- Margaret has the idea of giving Olga a pang of hunger in bed. Perhaps Olga should say she really fancies some blinnies from The Blinnaya in St Petersburg, brought to her by Pasha, a troika driver. I shriek – 'Can I play Olga'!?*   


Our food is brought to us – but seemingly not in exactly the way we’ve ordered it. It turns out our waiter’s memory failed him, he took only half of our order and then disappeared. There are further mix-ups with our drinks too and we’re getting quite irritated. Eventually he comes back and offers Margaret what he considers her usual – Bloody Mary – instead of what she asked for. When she says – 'I don’t want Bloody Mary', he just says – 'oh, that’s a surprise'.


What a day!


*Eventually Neil auditioned for an actress in London, and found a perfect Olga in Angela Clerkin. Unfortunately however, Angela fell so seriously ill on the very last day of the run that she had to be hospitalised. As the show was completely sold out, Alan refused to let us cancel the last performance, and Neil decided to ask me to step in! When I eventually agreed and went through an emergency rehearsal with whoever was available that afternoon, Neil said: "Thank you so much! I'd never do it. I'd rather eat a plate of dog food than perform on the stage!". In any case, one should be careful what one asks for, even in jest!  

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Eleven - 3 June 2004

Chekhov’s House – Novodevichy – The Cherry Orchard


After a posh breakfast at our posh hotel, Neil, Margaret and I have a posh working session on the balcony. We’re having some really nice breakthroughs and finding interesting solutions to various emerging questions.


We are meant to be meeting Tanya for lunch in town so we make our own way to our local metro station next to the Dynamo football stadium. Neil and I are slightly nervous about going into the metro on our own; Margaret is chatty. I tell her the story of Dushechka and she identifies it as being translated into English as The Darling.


Today we’re going to Chekhov’s Moscow house (we’re not doing our trail chronologically, of course: his Yalta house was the last house he lived in, the one today is a house from his student days in Moscow, when he’d just set up his medical practice). We are greeted by an elderly lady called Galina (a very sophisticated version of ‘babushka’) who is very sweet but quite stern with us, asking us to put plastic bags/slippers on our feet and to turn off all recording equipment. She reminds me a bit of my own grandma and I have an urge to film just her as she is talking to us. She of course tells us the whole Chekhov family story which we’ve heard before, as she leads us through various rooms ornamented with silent ‘babushkas’ in corners. I like this house. On the ground floor there is Chekhov’s GP reception as well as his and his painter-brother’s tiny bedrooms. The sophisticated babushka talks us through various details in Russian, all the time warning us not to tread on the carpet with our feet (enveloped in plastic bags). Meanwhile, she is wearing her own everyday shoes. In the corner of this room there is a lovely babushka with big feet who seems to be taking in every single word of Galina’s with a glint in her eye, as if she is hearing it all for the first time. We all fall in love with her at once (but only realise this later), stealing little glances of her while pretending to listen to our lesson. Galina then offers to make an exception and take us into Chekhov’s bedroom which is usually roped off and the babushka with big feet immediately lunges across to take the rope off. Leading us across the room, Galina kicks the corner of the carpet with her shoe out of the way for us.


Upstairs there is a lovely salon where the Chekhovs entertained. Galina tells us they used to love partying and Anton always celebrated his birthday with a cabbage pie – his favourite dish. Our light-bulbs immediately go on in relation to the 2 July event.


By the way, this whole 2 July thing is getting really confusing because we’re finding out that even though he died on 2 July European time, this is equivalent to 15 July Russian time, which is the day when they mark the centenary of his death. We are also finding that the different museums all lay their own claim to authenticity regarding the items that they curate and we’re already seeing the items and photographs we’ve seen before and believed they were the authentic ones. Galina informs us that they provide the Yalta museum with a lot of their own material for exhibitions etc. Needless to say, we’re getting a bit confused.


On the upper floor there is also the bedroom of Chekhov’s sister Maria. Hers is directly above her brothers’ rooms and equivalent in size to both of theirs together. All bedrooms are facing out onto the street. Her room houses her painting paraphernalia and a sowing machine (which I’m sure has English writing on it) and a dressing table. Galina tells us that actors love to come here and get photographed.


Eventually she takes us to a big gallery on the side of the upper floor and onto a tiny studio theatre where they exhibit posters of various productions of Chekhov’s plays from all over the world. She also requests a copy of our poster when it’s ready. We promise her one and say fond farewells, eager to get out of the blue shopping bags on our feet.


Next is the Novodevichy cemetery (also to be found in Cinzano and Smirnova's Birthday). This is several metro changes away. Tanya proceeds to read a paper in the train while we cower in a corner standing next to some really suspicious looking young men. Then she makes two false attempts to lead us out of the train (one resulting in us almost losing Neil), as she’s got her stations mixed up.


A short walk away (along which Neil manages to get a copy of Russian Vogue and agrees to let me have a look at it later only if I 'promise not to break the spine'), we finally step into a massive neatly laid out cemetery walled off from the rest of the world. This however is a world of its own – we see grave stones ranging from tiny crosses and urn boxes with scratched out portraits, to entire tanks and extravagant monuments towering over tiny allotments. We try to find Chekhov’s grave on the map we were given and take a turn past a monument to a ballerina next to a monument to a clown (who looks more like a drunkard) with his dog. We enter a lane which we think we should be on and suddenly strange things start happening: there are flowers falling off in droves from – what Neil identifies as – chestnut trees. Then as we approach Chekhov’s grave, the Novodevichy Monastery’s bells start going off tentatively and then increasing in speed and volume and – it starts raining. By coincidence of circumstances it all turns out to be a rather solemn and poetic occasion. Chekhov’s grave has the MHAT logo on it – an engraving of a seagull – and so does Olga Knipper’s, right next to his. I’m relieved to find out that the death-date on his gravestone is given as 2 July. We huddle under umbrellas and after a while we spot more graves with seagulls on them – Stanislavski’s (the most prominent one in its section), and Nemirovch-Danshchenko’s and Bulgakov’s, and then there is a tiny stone to Efimov (the recent late director of MHAT that Tanya’s friend Irina had a life-long crush on). It is very evident that proximity to Stanislavski’s grave has a special significance in the world of dead Russian theatre artists.


Driven by the rain, we make our way back to the metro with the intention of getting something to eat before going to MHAT to see The Cherry Orchard.


We find a café opposite MHAT called The City Café. It’s Margaret’s son’s birthday today and she’s been trying unsuccessfully to get through to him all day. She’s slightly agitated about this. Meanwhile, Neil asks Tanya to translate our horoscopes to us from his Russian Vogue while we wait for food. As she settles down to it, she presses the page, running the edge of her hand down the inner spine. Neil’s face contorts into an expression of horror. I decide not to ask him to have a look at his Vogue after all. As our food arrives, the fact concerning the quality of the food we’ve been having so far – is stated yet again. This is when the thought of compiling lists occurs to me and I ask everyone to give me their favourite dishes and favourite places in the last ten days. The lists look like this (not necessarily in order of preference):



-       Fried mussels in Café Yalta (by the sea)

-       Asparagus in mustard sauce (same place)

-       Breakfast in the Hotel Yalta



-       Smoked salmon breakfast in the Sovietski Hotel

-       The ‘four legged’ flat chicken (called ‘Tabaka’) in The Restaurant in St Pete

-       Pelmeni with Salmon in Blinnaya in St Pete

-       The Solyanka Soup in The Three Piglets (in Pushkin)



-       Chicken kebab (she’s having right now in the City Café in Moscow)

-       Yalta Hotel breakfast

-       Blinnies in St Pete (on the final day with me)



-       Blinnies in St Pete

-       The Sturgeon on the second night in St Petersburg 


In a moment of highly atypical carelessness, Margaret catches a cup with the end of her sleeve, and while she manages to save it from spilling all over us, the momentum of her sudden movement causes a chain reaction and knocks over a glass of bear in Neil’s direction. Luckily the Vogue is safely out of the way.


There is a mounting excitement on the pavement outside of theatre. It is the premiere of The Cherry Orchard tonight and Ranyevskaya is played by a famous film actress. This is her theatre debut and the crowds are here mainly because of her. Tanya decided not to go into the theatre with us, but books us a taxi and waits till we get in. I’ve got my camera out on the crowd and the street, and then a McDonalds sign in Cyrillic letters, and as I turn around to record a little Gypsy boy who is falling asleep while playing a famous Strauss tune on the Danube theme, Lev Dodin flies into my frame, putting money in the boy’s donations box. Accompanied by his entourage he’s here also for the premiere.


Later, while we are seated and waiting for a massive MHAT curtain (with the seagull logo) to lift, we see Dodin saying hellos to people in his row. Then the actor who played Vanya and Platonov walks past looking for his seat. We’re getting impatient, but there is a customary 15 minute delay. Then, the show starts, and the first scene is played solely in front of the curtain with the seagull on.


When the curtain finally opens out – there is nothing behind it. Within the first few minutes we realise that this is going to be a bit of a disappointment – quite a sleek and classy disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.


In the interval we contemplate leaving, but we know we have a taxi booked for after the show. So we resign ourselves to another hour of watching the actors strut around an empty set (which has by now started to revolve as well). While Margaret and Neil go back to the auditorium I decide to go to the toilet. Suddenly as I’m standing in the queue, I see Neil moving with great urgency and saying ‘Guess who I’ve just been to the toilet with’, he points at a figure in front of him and it’s Vanya/Platonov. I laugh for a long time afterwards, all the while attracting strange glances from heavily made up female members of the audience.


When I come back to my seat, it transpires that Margaret sent Neil into the toilet after Platonov, but the male diva took one glance at the overflowing queues and decided not to go in after all.


The second half is shorter and actually features an entire orchestra on the stage for some 10 minutes. However, the curtain call – as usual – is twice the length of the show.


Relieved, we walk out and while waiting for the taxi, Neil decides to go and buy some cigarettes. Margaret points at someone behind me – Platonov again, with a female companion. I say – ‘well, this means we really ought to go and say how much we’ve enjoyed his performance’. Margaret tries to dissuade me from doing this, but I just walk across and say what I intended. It is a massive disaster. The female companion translates our congratulations, but the guy is just gazing into the distance above our heads. Slightly embarrassed, we say good luck for their Moscow season and start to depart. At that point Neil on his way back is walking past us – he’s clearly seen us but pretends he doesn’t know us. We’re deeply embarrassed and Margaret is inconsolable for a long time afterwards.


On the way back we say – how lucky that we didn’t have to talk to the director of the show after all – as Tanya was going to arrange a meeting with him for us. Neil says: ‘I mean, what would I say to him – did you have issues with the budget?’        


Back at the hotel I continue to compile lists, which leads Neil to start a conversation about Russian 'inspection-shelf loos'. I’m puzzled as to what this is and then he draws an ordinary loo and an 'inspection-shelf loo' for me. I remember! This is the conversation we already had in America – the strange luxury most non-British people enjoy: the ability to inspect their own product.


So here is another product of my list compilation:


Most Interesting Moments (so far):


-       The waitress in the Yalta Café by the sea (Neil)

-       The debacle with the actor tonight (Margaret and me)

-       Fish flying into my vodka (general)

-       The curtain call for Uncle Vanya (me)

-       Neil getting stung and saying: ‘By the time we get back my arm will have to be amputated’. (me)

-       The mugging (Neil)

-       Having a hangover in the Dostoyevski Museum (Margaret)

-       The loo in the Chekhov Museum in Yalta having an inspection shelf (Neil)

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Ten - 2 June 2004

MHAT – Red Square – Taganka   


Tanya, who is now finally on her home turf, has booked us in with her friend Irina, the director of the Moscow Arts Theatre (MHAT)’s museum and archive. We spend the first bit of the morning browsing through albums of photographs from Chekhov’s original productions. Margaret reveals that if she lived in Moscow she would probably be working here.


When Irina receives us, she asks not to be filmed because she’s been in a traffic accident and doesn’t look too good at the moment. But I record her story of Chekhov’s death and post-humus honours while focusing my camera on other things. Some of this – like the story that his doctor ordered champagne just before his death, we already know from Carver and other sources, but that his corpse travelled back with a consignment of oysters is a novelty - and a kind of story that Chekhov himself might have relished.


After about an hour Irina entrusts us to one of the museum curators – a relatively young ‘babushka’ in a massive sheepskin waistcoat who first of all takes us to the landing to have a cigarette. We like her immediately. She talks in Russian as she takes us through the story of MHAT and its beginning in Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danshchenko’s experiments. Tanya translates. We are actually dragging a small group of British and American tourists with us who were kind of attached to us by another curator (later I discover that they had actually participated at the IFTR conference in St Pete's last week). They ask some questions which we are not terribly interested in, and the entire thing once again turns into a detailed study of various items of props, sets and costumes in glass cabinets.


Eventually the lovely babushka in a sheepskin coat takes us to Nemirovich-Danshchenko’s office (which hasn’t been touched ever since) and then onto Stanislavski’s office/dressing room. Eventually she insists that we should see the office/dressing room of MHAT’s penultimate artistic director Efimov who died a couple of years ago. We try to decline, unsuccessfully.


After the babushka’s got rid of the Americans, she deposits us at the backstage canteen where Tanya is waiting for us. Over lunch she tells us how we were taken to that final artistic director's office because her friend Irina had been ‘secretly’ in love with Efimov all her life and the babushka said Irina would’ve killed her if we'd given it a miss.


After a light snack, and a coffee across the road – where Tanya lists all our potential expenses this week while Neil watches a fashion show on TV – we decide to take a walk to the Kremlin. The walk is of course spectacular, but there are no queues in front of Lenin’s tomb, which means that it is closed and that we’re not missing the opportunity to go. Going past St Basil’s, somebody mentions the story of how, on its completion, Ivan the Terrible blinded the architects who had built it so that they couldn’t repeat a similar edifice anywhere else. Past the rows of stalls selling Russian dolls with the faces of various American and Russian presidents and Hollywood film stars, we are heading for the Hotel Russia where we can sip our drinks and savour the view of the Red Square in peace. It suddenly occurs to us that we'd initially had the option of staying here, but we are SO much happier that we’re staying where we are.


There isn’t much time before the theatre for anything else, so as soon as we’ve finished our drinks we head for the Taganka theatre (famous for its golden - politically controversial - age under the late artistic director Lyubimov). Maly is doing The Moscow Choir here tonight. It is a new play written by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, but I hope Neil won’t ask who the author is before we go in (as I fear he would be prejudiced against it as a result of his relatively recent artistic struggle with her earlier plays Cinzano and Smirnova's Birthday). He does.


Tanya has arranged for us to meet Dina Dodina (Dodin’s niece and Maly’s International Director) before the show, but has decided not to stay and see it herself for the third time. Instead she has a coffee with all of us, books us a taxi and disappears. Dina says Dodin would be very happy to meet us after the show and we arrange to meet by the ‘ugly statue of Pushkin’ after the curtain call.    


As usual by now, the Maly show is extremely well attended and spectacular from the word ‘go’. There is a multi-layered set on the stage simulating communal living in the 1950s – which is the period the play is set in. It’s a simple but effective family story with lots of choral singing (built into the show as a backdrop to the communal life: everyone sings together in order to survive by winning a choral competition.) The surtitles are in Italian this time round, but we somehow manage to put bits and pieces together and make sense of it. The curtain call is another test of clapping endurance and this time round the show’s director as well as Dodin and Petrushevskaya herself take to the stage.


When he sees us backstage, Dodin looks genuinely happy to do so, despite the fact he and his company are completely enveloped by adoring fans. He beams at us especially when we flatter him that we are here on Chekhov AND Dodin pilgrimage. He exudes a very positive energy and we are all elated by the encounter. He sends his fondest regards to Alan and when we turn around to go, Neil bumps into a tiny woman who hugs and kisses him. At first we think it’s a fan who got her facts and faces mixed up, but then Neil explains that that was Tanya, Dodin’s wife and a former primadonna of the Maly - and he suddenly looks very sad realising the state of her. There is a famous anecdote about how Tanya had tried to kill herself once when they were on tour in Paris - by jumping from the window of her hotel room (even though it was on the first floor). But they are evidently still together, and Dodin, who has recently had a successful heart operation looks in top form - whereas Tanya seems to have considerably withered away, at least according to Neil's memory of her.*


That night I finally read the story called Dushechka. From what I make out of it, it’s all about a woman who tried to please her husbands and ended up on her own, finally learning life from scratch.


* Lev Dodin's link to Northern Stage goes back to 1998 when on Alan Lyddiard's invitation he came to Newcastle with his dramaturg Michael Stronin and some members of his company to conduct a residency with members of the Northern Stage ensemble somewhere in the depths of Northumberland. They worked on Uncle Vanya and, according to the recollections of some ensemble members, they spent the first day listening to Dodin read the whole of Uncle Vanya in the original Russian, while Stronin translated! Nevertheless, despite the fact that Alan usually has the attention span of a three year old when it comes to text-based theatre, he still adores Dodin unquestioningly. Interestingly for me, I share my birthday with Dodin, and this year, I had my thirtieth on the same day as he had his sixtieth - and both of us got our special birthday wishes from Alan. It is said of Taureans that they have the tendency to retell War and Peace page by page. Judging by the length of Dodin's productions and the length of this particular travelogue itself - this is probably true of both of us!  


The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Nine - 1 June 2004

Yalta – Moscow


It’s the day of our departure and the last day of the mass-produced breakfast. We try to spend the last of our Grivnas but run out of time before we are uploaded into a taxi. Neil and I suddenly remember Nicola – because she’s always wanted to come to Yalta, so I send her a text. It turns out she & co. are having a very good time in Romania. So we feel better.


More queuing and form filling at the airport etc, etc. It occurs to me I’ve forgotten to lock my suitcase before I checked it in, and so did Margaret, so we panic because we’ve been told that locking suitcases is very important around here. But this turns out not to be too much of a problem – we are led through a door on the side and allowed to find and lock our suitcases which are waiting in piles on a couple of massive trolleys.


In Moscow, the taxi driver can’t actually close the boot of his car. Our suitcases are sticking out, but he just ties them with a rope. I spend much of the journey looking backwards for any lost items until he reassures me he’s never lost anything. I think wistfully of Pasha again.


It’s a straight, though longish drive from the airport to our imposing hotel called the Sovyetski. But the Sovyetski is a real Soviet marvel. It has porters and red carpets and interiors that look like they’ve jumped out of a top class brochure. As we’re checked in we are served champagne and then escorted to our rooms. There is a harp playing in the background and I’m turning around to spot the movie cameras. The rooms are in keeping with the first impressions and I can’t wait to luxuriate in here for the rest of the week. In fact I wouldn’t mind staying here indefinitely.


I take the stairs on my trip down with my camera. I meet a portrait of Stalin on the landing of the second floor, and all the while the harp is playing.


On a mini landing in between the first and the ground floors, a double door opens out on what looks like a balcony, and behind the curtains flowing in gentle breeze, I spot – Neil, with his camera. We complete the tour, all the way down to the Yar Restaurant – a major Russian establishment surviving from the 19th century and situated here since 1910. Its prices – we are told – are very high.


Within this oasis of sumptuousness, Neil, Margaret and I proceed with yet another working session while browsing through the menu and picking some delicious sounding items to accompany our by now regular order of beer (Neil), vodka (Margaret) and G&T (me).


The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Eight - 31 May 2004

Work – The Tsar’s Palace – Work – and more food


I’m getting really concerned about the amount of food we scoff on a regular basis. After another giant breakfast (where I reduced the amount of eggs and bread and increased the portion of fruit), we settle down on Neil’s balcony to work. We find out we’re lacking coffee, so I get to practice my Russian again and order coffees by phone. It feels very luxurious to be brought drinks to the 11th floor. We have an excellent working session – some of which Neil actually films (more specifically the point when I comment on a particular scene by saying ‘I wonder whether this would be a post-coital conversation’).


As soon as our car pulls up to the grounds of the tsar’s Palace (the place where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had the famous Yalta conference at which it was decided that the country I was born in should be a communist country), my magpie’s eye spots a cap hanging in one of many stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs. It’s golden yellow and has long tresses at the back. The seller says it’s a Tartar cap (Tanya tells us that the Tartars were traditionally settled here before Stalin cleared them out because he was afraid they’d betray them during WW2). She gives me a quote which amounts to about £15. Margaret and Neil declare that it suits me and Margaret urges me to buy it because I might regret not buying it. I say I’ll get it if it’s still there when we return. So we buy tickets and make our way through a babushka-guarded gate to the entrance of the Palace. The babushka and Tanya are shouting something to each other. I’ve walked in with a camera on and I think it’s probably to do with this, but it turns out the babushka is advising us not to get lunch in the Palace because it’s very expensive and to go to a little tent under some trees. So we come out again and are seated under the trees, being attacked by insects and munching on rather simple sandwiches (the golden cap continuously within my field of vision).


Eventually we put our customary slippers on (this is a must in every Russian museum) and parade through long corridors, first of all surreptitiously touching Stalin’s chair (despite Tanya’s very serious warning that if they catch us the babushkas will bite our heads off). Then we go into the Romanoffs bit. Apart from the fact that Romanoff wrote very boring diaries (they are exhibited on the walls and every one of them states where he drove in his car today; much like this one focusing on what we ate today!), there is something really moving about these rooms and the pictures in them. The Romanoffs were obviously quite religious – there are icons on various walls - and quite keen on photography. There are endless pictures of the princesses in white dresses and the young leukaemia-suffering prince. Tanya tells me the story of how they were thrown down a miner’s pit after many days of being kept hostage. There are books by Chekhov in their library, but apparently they didn’t visit this particular Palace very often.


After we come out into the tastefully arranged garden we spend a long time wandering around pensively. Eventually we come to a small chapel at the other end of the building and I wonder whether Stalin ever took his American and British counterparts to see this. The chapel is exquisite and it also features an icon of the royal family who were beatified after their death.


On the way back, the stall with the golden cap is being dismantled, but I get there just in time, and I end up with an outrageous acquisition. Neil says I have to wear belly dancing gear with it and I propose to do it on the opening night of the show – just turn up dressed like Ruth St Denis.


Being chauffeured around by some random taxi driver, I wonder out loud what Pasha might be doing now. Neil says – ‘He’s happily married, you know, are you trying to split his family up?’ Tanya says he had an American DJ lined up after us. She then proceeds to tell us how talented and clever he is, having gone to a very distinguished engineer’s college in St Pete he then found out that there was no work in his field in post-perestroika years. So he’s been driving and now he finds it’s too late to resume his career but he’s very happy with the sense of freedom he gets from his job. I say to Margaret there is a story in there somewhere and she proceeds to discuss the idea in detail...


We have another very fruitful working session on Neil’s balcony in the afternoon before going onto a restaurant 'treasure hunt'. We’ve decided to try and find a restaurant on the beach that Janet Malcolm discovered by walking through a tunnel at the bottom of the hotel. (So we ditched the idea of dining at our kind passer-by’s restaurant but we did deliver a box of chocolates for her earlier today). We go down in the hotel lift to the bottom floor which opens onto a tunnel. We walk through it for quite a while, Neil smoking all along. As we get out, he throws his cigarette end leisurely on the pavement and suddenly a ‘babushka’ (who is seemingly minding the tunnel here) springs out of nowhere and starts shouting hysterically for Neil to pick it up. Taken by surprise, Neil picks it up muttering ‘Sorry’ and Tanya reassuringly says to the babushka in Russian ‘He is terribly sorry’. In a way that feels like she is running after us threateningly, the babushka replies: ‘He’s not terribly sorry, he is just sorry’. I name this one Baba Yaga. (Baba Yaga is a Russian fairy tale creature equivalent to an evil witch). Finally we walk down to the sea and stumble upon a restaurant which has tables and chairs under an awning right beside the beach. We decide this is it and settle down. 

This time we are served by a very choleric, hyperactive waitress, which – when she interprets the menu to Tanya (enthusiastically and very efficiently) – sounds a bit like she’s highly agitated. Tanya replies in a way that almost matches the waitress’s tempo. We’re all slightly taken aback and burst out laughing with relief every time she leaves our table. But she keeps coming back with suggestions and we are all being characteristically picky and the conversation between Tanya and the waitress escalates so much so that at one point concerned Margaret asks: ‘What is the emotional content?’ I say I don’t think there is any as they continue to shout over each other clarifying the number and the kind of starters as well as the number and the kind of side orders. In the end, we all end up with four starters each!      


Neil has the four legged flat chicken again, and I have the fishes which Tanya recommended as a local delicacy but which look slightly familiar to me – I think they are very similar to the fish that jumped into my vodka, and I press them down firmly to my plate.


The waitress with logorrhoea keeps coming back and this all turns into – a delicious – but a very weird meal. As we finally walk back to the hotel it’s pelting down with rain and we’re too late for the lift so we end up climbing a mountain, at least comforting ourselves that this is good for burning all the excess calories. 

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Seven - 30 May 2004

The Chekhov House and Garden – The Cherry Orchard


My hopes and repeated requests for an easy-going day off at some point don’t seem likely to yield any results. As we descend to breakfast at the massive Hotel Yalta’s canteen we’re discussing various arrangements and plans that we have for the next two days (this includes more excursions and more concentrated working sessions). The breakfast buffet is mind-blowing, featuring every kind of breakfast you can imagine – and more. Rows of fruit and salads, and neatly rolled pieces of steaming omelette and pancakes and stuffed cabbage leaves, and cereals and pastries and – we wonder again where the poor people from New Writing North had been on their travels in Russia when their cautionary stories to us before our departure sounded so grim.


The major pilgrimage for the day is Chekhov’s house in Yalta. In fact there are two –the other one being much smaller and much further away and therefore deemed not of particular interest. We were meant to be hosted by the museum’s director but Tanya can’t reach him on his mobile and it turns out that we will be hosted by his assistant. I quickly get Margaret to my room to choose the chocolates we’d take as a present. I empty the contents of my bag on the bed and Margaret looks very concerned. Then she bursts out laughing. She says the boxes look like rats have been at them – all the corners are squashed and there are bends and creases all along the sides. Neil says we’ve obviously misallocated all the roles – he says he would be very good as the chocolatier because he would be very anally retentive about packing them. He offers that we swap roles, but Margaret just takes over the chocolates as she’s been rather underutilised in her capacity as the pharmacist – the only medicine we needed were eardrops for me which we had to buy in St Pete and Lemsip for me which I already had. She gives me Solpadeine in return which she says is very good first thing in the morning to help you wake up and kill any pain you might have.


It’s wet and foggy in Yalta (though the view from our windows is magnificent). We arrive into the museum and are introduced to our guide Alla. She doesn’t speak any English so Tanya will translate. But first we are offered the opportunity to watch a performance of A Lady with the Lapdog put on by the Simferopol drama students particularly for the pleasure of an American group of tourists. It’s a very basic piece which is both narrated and performed by the actors and which has cut out very few lines from the original. We sit through it and just as we’re about to breathe a sigh of relief at the end, there is a bizarre dance routine taking place. Alla offers us to go to a café across the road called The Cherry Orchard for some refreshments before the start of our tour. The café is one of those places which works only when there is somebody in it, we drink fruit juice from cartons and coffee from plastic caps all the time eyed by a couple of strange-looking regulars.


When we finally reach Chekhov’s garden Margaret is struck by an urge to take a stone from the garden to use as a paper weight – she asks Neil to choose one for her. Meanwhile Neil is discussing the plants – his knowledge of individual species is astonishing! We’ve been talking about Jeanette Winterson a lot and I talked about Tradescant the explorer in Sexing the Cherry and suddenly Neil points out a spring of tradescantia and has the wonderful idea to pick a leaf and send it to Jeanette Winterson asking her to come and read Errand on 2 July at Northern Stage (as part of an event we were planning in order to launch the whole project which would be due to open in October).


Alla is a very enthusiastic but very quiet, bespectacled lady (looking like a librarian) who leads us around the garden and the house with great attention to detail. She tells us many stories about origins of ideas which we find in Chekhov’s plays – like the bookcase in Cherry Orchard which was actually modelled on a chest of drawers in Chekhov’s bedroom. She also tells us about which pieces exactly were written here and which trees exactly were planted by Chekhov. There is much pride in her demeanour as a curator of this particular museum. Predictably we spend a lot of time in his study examining every single object. My favourite however is a little veranda off the dining room on the first floor. There is a bed on the veranda and I speculate whether this might be the kind of place where our character Sasha falls into eternal sleep. I’ve been insisting on really locating our characters and events in various places we’ve come across on our travels – like: identifying exactly where Sasha’s guests might be living when they are not visiting him in his dacha etc.


There is a piano in the room and Alla tells us that the famous singer Shalyapin was a regular guest here and we listen to a recording of Shalyapin singing ‘Ochi charnie…’. Also Tolstoy and Rachmaninov and Bunin occur on various photographs taken in and around the place and then we listen to more stories from Chekhov’s personal and family life.    


After about a couple of hours we emerge into the courtyard and Neil and I find the equivalent of a bike-shed to have a cigarette. Meanwhile, Alla tells us about how this house was requisitioned by a German officer during WW2 even though Chekhov’s elderly sister still lived in it. But his stay didn’t last long. After the war a bust of Chekhov’s was revealed in Yalta and both his sister Maria and his wife – actress Olga Knipper – by now in their eighties, were present. The first one politely declined to give any speeches, but the second – jumped at the opportunity, of course!


Alla takes us back to the gallery where we saw the students’ performance and yet another detailed tour of pictures and photographs ensues. There is another desk of Chekhov’s there and Margaret goes to stroke the bottom of the desk panel – she lets us into the secret that she did it in the house as well, and that this is ‘what writers do when they think’!


Neil and I go back into the garden for another cigarette and in search of what Margaret now calls ‘the rock’ for her desk. Eventually she ends up with three heavy items to add to her luggage.


Walking out of the museum grounds, escorted by Alla, we catch glimpse of a little paddle with water-lilies in them. The lily story continues – I say maybe we should have these in the show. Neil is not overly impressed and instead Margaret and him proceed to talk about their heroine Verushka – this is a déjà vu – a repetition of a conversation I remember them having in Seattle.


On our way into town, Tanya stops a passer by to ask for directions to a good restaurant. The girl says she is a cook at a really good one which works only in the evenings, and leads us to a small Turkish place which she likes. Margaret observes that it would have been really good to have had extra chocolates on us now to reward the girl for her efforts, and we vow to go to her restaurant tomorrow and give her a box. We have a really nice leisurely lunch followed by Turkish coffee and a session of fortunetelling from the cups. Tanya and I are well versed in this, but Margaret and Neil also have a go and both turn out to be very good, particularly Neil who sees in my cup a heavy curtain drenched with water – whatever that might mean.


Neil is attentively listening to a kind of local pop music (at home we have a term for this kind of music - ‘turbo-folk’). He proclaims he likes it and would like to get a CD of it. Margaret energetically tries to dissuade him from doing it and Neil says: I know why you’re doing this, you’re afraid it might end up in the show!


Then we take a walk through town. We go to a music shop and I end up buying a random CD with Russian film music, two videos with feature film fairytales (which I fondly remember from my childhood) and a DVD of a multi-award wining Russian ‘melodrama’ filmed last year in Yalta. Neil decides not to buy any music. Then we walk into a square where we meet Grisha – a really friendly monkey. And eventually we walk back to the hotel taking the route by the beach which also features a number of dilapidated huts which Neil photographs with real gusto.


Arriving at the bottom of the flowery path leading up to our gigantic hotel, Margaret and I discuss what star sign the characters in the play might be. We all make a spontaneous decision to settle down in an open air bar and drink cocktails – and we continue our work-related conversations. Neil draws for us his ideas for the installations. I think of the four seasons theme, which is very fitting considering our working process (starting in American winter, via Russian spring/summer and English autumn). We stay here for quite a while till it gets dark and we decide to go into the hotel and find another restaurant.


The waitress serving us in one of the hotel’s restaurants is (very pretty and) quite frisky, which Tanya interprets as her ‘probably being drunk’. And so every time she comes back we’re straining to smell her breath. We’ve settled down in a corner under an enormous TV set playing Ukrainian music. I keep wondering whether their Eurovision winner will come up – everyone seems to have heard this song apart from me. For some reason this restaurant really reminds me of the place we dined at in Port Angelis. I think about it and realise that our trips have had perfect dramaturgical three act structure (Yakima – Port Angeles – Seattle; … St Petersburg – Yalta – Moscow; … table – lake – bed*). All along in Yalta I’m having an urge to go swimming but never get a chance to go to the swimming pool, and it’s too cold for the sea. We all establish we’ve never imagined our stay in Yalta like this – we’ve always thought we’d be basking in the sun (Margaret even got us some sun-screen).


Suddenly, the whole spell is broken with the arrival of a very bad accordionist who insists on playing really loudly even though nobody’s reacting positively to him. After a while – our irritation reaching boiling point – some people next to us applaud him, probably in the hope he’d go away. Our waitress comes back and Tanya complains about the music. The waitress says ‘we’ll fucking turn him off’. This endears her very much to all of us, and Tanya decides she’s not drunk after all, just temperamental.


We make arrangements for an early morning working session and go to sleep.


* 'Table-lake-bed' was a three-act formula I proposed for the play, based on our editing process. We'd initially read and shortlisted a number of short stories by both Chekhov and Carver. On our return from the American trip we sat down and put together lists of impressions, images, places and situations. Three groups of imagery predominated: situations around tables, situations around water and situations around beds and bedrooms. This therefore bacame a useful basis for our three act structure.