Review: I Take Your Hand In Mine… (The Chekhov Collective)

I Take Your Hand in Mine is a “must see for Chekhov enthusiasts” at the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto

handinmine1Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper were a power couple in the world of Russian theatre at the turn of the previous century. She was a popular actress with the Moscow Art Theatre and he a renowned playwright. They first met during a revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Though they were mostly apart during the next six years, they corresponded continuously and maintained an intense relationship as creative collaborators, friends, lovers and, eventually, husband and wife.

Carol Rocamora has woven together bits and pieces of over four hundred of their love letters and fashioned them into this intimate two-hander: I Take Your Hand In Mine…, presented by The Chekhov Collective and currently playing at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

This piece may be best appreciated by those familiar with Chekhov’s work and curious about his personal life. The play follows a straightforward chronology, starting with their initial meeting and ending with Chekhov’s death only six years later. It flows smoothly and never rushes or belabours anything. In a naturalistic and easy manner, it covers a great deal of ground: their love/hate relationship to the theatre, Chekov’s illness (tuberculosis), the tension between Olga and Chekov’s mother and sister and the strain that long distance put on their own marriage.

Director Dmitry Zhukovsky and performers Richard Sheridan Willis and Rena Polley keep it very simple. I was impressed by how perfectly they maintained a very intense atmosphere with very little stagecraft. There isn’t even that much movement. Performances are, for the most part, quiet and still, which makes the minimal movement seem all the more evocative and meaningful.

Willis and Polley are dressed in contemporary clothes that seem carefully chosen for their timeless quality. Her simple floral blouse, his loose, ratty jacket and well-used fedora, these garments suggest these characters exist across time rather than in it. There is also no attempt at Russian accents. Each performs in their natural voice, which supports the immediate and conversational tone set by the text.

Despite the occasional line stumble (#openingnightproblems), I found them mesmerizing, these two! Oh, his weary yet charming drawl, her manic lapses into sensual hyperbole… both of them humourous and playful to the end in the face of adversity.

In one of my favourite moments, Chekhov coaches her through a performance of one of Masha’s speeches from Three Sisters (which he wrote for her). He helps her to shed any artificial drama, to simply read his text and allow the truth to shine through. Not only is it a poignant moment between these two, it also indicates the key to staging Chekov’s writing.

When performed as melodrama, where actors throw themselves on the floor in hysterics and there is explicitly ominous foreshadowing of dark times ahead, much of the sincerity is lost. But when his text is performed light and easy, the truth will out; the genuine sadness and anger will rise to the surface. It must happen from the bottom up, not the top down.

Having seen The Chekhov Collective’s production of The Seagull last year, I was given a taste of this understated Chekhovian intensity. It was breathtaking! And this latest production, presented in a mode inspired by Chekhov, is yet another example of this company’s dedication to the iconic playwright’s vision.

A must see for Chekhov enthusiasts!


Photo of Richard Sheridan Willis and Rena Polley by Mariana Mitrovich