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)