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!