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Case Number 14760: Small Claims Court

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The Anton Chekhov Collection

BBC Video // 2008 // 1094 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // October 17th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Brett Cullum likes theatre with his Russians sad and his actors English.

The Charge

Eighteen hours of British actors playing unhappy Russians, and an in-depth look at one of the world's greatest authors.

The Case

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is known as a legend of the short story and a master playwright. He was born in 1860 and grew up to be a revered author who established Russian theatre and redefined how plays work. Chekhov used his theatrical works to examine characters rather than propel plots, and he is known as an "actor's writer" for providing deep personal studies of men and women that informed audiences about the pain of the human condition. He was fond of farces, but his legacy on the stage revolves around his elaborate tragedies such as The Seagull, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov's world is a bleak one where yearning leads to disappointment, and love is often the most destructive force one can engage in. He attempted to capture the unhappiness of the Russian people at the turn of the century, and somehow managed to create portraits of tortured souls that resonated with the rest of the world.

The author himself probably best described his work in the following famous quote:

"All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!'"

The Anton Chekhov Collection from BBC Video is a six disc set that mines their extensive archives of works created by British master thespians performing the greatest works of the Russian playwright's career. From 1959 to 1991, these plays are presented with excellent production values and sure-handed direction. The transfers are full screen and sometimes spotty in quality, but it is amazing to see these legendary pieces performed by the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench. The result is over eighteen hours of sublime theatre loaded down with significant extras and supplemental material.

Disc One:
• Platonov filmed in 1971
An early Chekhov work that originally ran six hours, but edited to only two for this adaptation. The play was unpublished in the playwright's lifetime, and is thought to have been written when he was 20. The BBC production here features Rex Harrison who played the lead role on stage about a Russian man who drifts all too easily from one woman to the next. It is not as polished and real as later works, but an interesting look at the start of a great author.
Bonus features:
"Omnibus: Pennington on Chekhov" from 1984 featuring actor Michael Pennington discussing the personality of Chekhov.
Radio play featuring Ian McKellen of Wild Honey from 1989.

Disc Two:
• The Wood Demon filmed in 1974
An unsuccessful early play that later became the basis for Uncle Vanya.
• The Proposal filmed in 1959
A farce in one act that looks at marriage in Russia as an economic act rather than a proclamation of love. Runs only 30 minutes.
• The Wedding filmed in 1961
A short one-act again dealing with marriage in Russia.
Bonus Features:
Radio plays of Ivanov with Ralph Fiennes from 2001 and Swan Song starring Wilfrid Lawson from 1965.

Disc Three:
• The Seagull filmed in 1978
A landmark work by Chekhov that went unappreciated upon its initial premiere, and then his largest success two years later. The play is about a group of characters finding love in all the wrong places, and has more emotional revelations than plot. This production stars a young Stephen Rea as a tortured author with a washed-up actress as a mother.
• An Artist's Story filmed in 1974
An adaptation of a short story about a confrontation between a young landscape painter and a charitable aristocratic girl. Stars Patrick Stewart in an early role.
Bonus Features:
Five Chekhov short stories read by Ewan McGregor in 2002

Disc Four:
• Uncle Vanya filmed in 1970
A signature work which is the tragic comedy about lost hopes, stifled passions, and wasted lives. Vanya is a character who feels he has done nothing with his life, and has become sarcastic and bitter. Starring Anthony Hopkins.
• Uncle Vanya filmed in 1991
Another adaptation starring Ian Holm, David Warner, and Mary Elizabeth Mastantonio.
Bonus Feature:
A Visit From Vanya, a 1987 look at actors studying scenes from the play at the Moscow Art Theater.

Disc Five:
• The Three Sisters filmed in 1970
Anthony Hopkins appears in a story about a trio of women yearning and decaying simultaneously after the death of their father.

Disc Six:
• The Cherry Orchard filmed in 1962
A mother and daughter return to their family estate to find it in disrepair and financial ruin. Starring Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Ian Holm, and Paul Hardwick
• The Cherry Orchard filmed in 1981
Another adaptation starring Judi Dench and Bill Paterson.

This is an exhausting collection of some of the richest text provided for BBC productions. Each play is well performed, and the entire set is a joy to have for anybody who is a fan of or would like to get to know Anton Chekhov. The transfers vary wildly, and not much has been done to them to make them look better. But considering the talent on display, this becomes a minimal gripe. Extras are nice supplements including audio and video further examinations of Chekhov's short stories and productions. This is a theatre lover's dream come true—a parade of morose Russians speaking with clipped British accents. Eighteen hours of the best Chekhov interpretations you will ever see on television is irresistible.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 94

Perp Profile

Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 1094 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Foreign
• Performance
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Omnibus: Pennington on Chekhov
• Radio Play of Honey
• Radio Play of Ivanov
• Radio Play of Swan Song
• Five Chekov Short Stories Read by Ewan McGregor
• A Visit From Vanya

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