It was only after many years of experience that I was able to even somewhat appreciate the works of Chekhov on stage and screen. Something was always missing from my Chekhov experience, something that kept me from comprehending the primal artistic force in Chekhov's works. And after many years of rejecting, ignoring and/or suffering through Chekhov's major works in production, I have finally found that magic scene that snapped everything into place for me, and has caused me to love and revere Chekhov for the brilliant master of human drama that he was. I am happy to say that this scene is contained in Chayka, and if you seek to understand what Chekhov was trying to do, you simply must track down this film.
So far as I can tell, the film is not currently available for purchase anywhere, so track it down in a university library if you are able to do so. You will find that the picture quality is absolutely horrendous, the subtitles are often spotty and difficult to read, and much of the action (or, more specifically, non-action) feels as though it is not moving at all. But none of that matters. What matters is that in the span of 10 minutes, Lyudmila Savelyeva squeezes out more pathos and passion than many actresses encounter in a lifetime. Savelyeva, probably best known to world audiences for her work in War and Peace, is quite simply the best actress at interpreting Chekhov's work that I have ever seen. The payoff is near the end of the film; with her character Nina returning to visit her former lover after a two-year absence. Even without the context of the rest of the story, this is an arresting scene, as the actress in her late 20's reads as though she has seen as much suffering as Mother Russia itself has experienced throughout her long history. Within the context of the story, Savelyeva's change is so magically and maddeningly profound that it should bring tears to the eye of even the most jaded film-goer.
This is the essence of Chekhov. I can honestly write that, since I first discovered this version of Chekhov's play three years ago, it has not lost any of its magic. My limited experience with Chayka, and more specifically with Savelyeva, has taught me more about Chekhov than 10 years of serious theatergoing and advanced academic study. Chayka has become my "Rosetta Stone" for understanding Chekhov, and it should be required viewing in the study of this Russian master.
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