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.