These are superb performances of Chekov's plays. Several of them are given in two versions. The plays are so deep and beautifully constructed that they easily sustain repeated watching. It is particularly rewarding to see Judi Dench perform two different roles in The Cherry Orchard, several decades apart. We have spent many happy evenings in Chekov's company, thanks to this incomparable set. Highly recommended.
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I purchased this collection because I watched the Ibsen BBC collection years back and loved it. This is equally wonderful. It's true that the quality of the film could be better (i.e. in particular the sound) but it's still worth watching, even if you aren't familiar with Chekov.
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Greatest Hits by a MasterJan. 30 2009
M. A Newman
- Published on Amazon.com
I went through a period when I was studying Russian language in which I was tired of reading Chekhov. I regard this as a period of temperary madness which I am thankfully past. If asked, I would say that I am an unconditional fan.
One need not be familiar with Chekhov's work to appreciate this colleciton of plays staged by the BBC. It really does contain some gems. The most outstanding work on this collection, and it would be worth it if it had this play alone on it, is The Cherry Orchard with Judi Dench. All I can say is WOW! What a marvelous cast, this is the ideal version of this, the most Russian of all plays. Anyone who wishes to understand Russian society should first see this play and this version of the play. I am hoping that someday someone might do this play and set it in the "new Russia." It would require only a slight degree of updating. Rather than reflect on the end of serfdom, one can meditate on the end of the Soviet Union (it amounts to the same thing, really).
There are other plays in the collection. There is an excellent staging of Three Sisters (Janet Suzman is wonderful here), Uncle Vanya and the Seagull. All are very well done. There are few better ways to discover all the plays of Chekhov in such an easy and accessable manner. One can only look forward to further collections of classic dramatists from the BBC.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Chekhov PlaysOct. 19 2010
Howard M. Kindel
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Though the term "tragicomedy" was not coined specifically to designate the plays of Anton Chekhov, he is nonetheless considered the father of that particular 20th century genre. Chekhov meant his three masterpieces - "Uncle Vanya," " The Three Sisters," and "The Cherry Orchard" - to be primarily farces; and had he been a lesser artist he would have succeeded. But, being one of the greatest playwrights of all time, he endowed his characters with such a depth and range of emotion that their plight could not help but be seen as the very stuff of tragedy; for even though they were largely responsible for their own plight, they were so inextricably caught up in a certain way of life that they lacked the psychological means of holding back its dissolution. And this sense of inevitable loss and failure, even of doom, is exquisitely captured in the adaptations presented in this boxset of DVD's.
Both "Uncle Vanya" and "The Cherry Orchard" are rendered in two separate versions; and in each the later version seems to better portray the illusions, deceptions and manipulations essential to the characters' lives. There is more of the farcical in the two earlier versions - particularly evident in the John Gielgud adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard": it's even called "A Comedy by Anton Chekhov." Judi Dench appears in both versions of "The Cherry Orchard"; in the earlier version as the daughter of the leading character, and in the later version as the mother herself. And as great as she is as Madame Ranevsky. - even greater than Peggy Ashcroft; she pales as Anya, the daughter, next to Suzanne Burden's Anya in the later version. Even John Gielgud's Leonid takes a back seat to Frederic Treves'. Similarly, Paul Hardwick's Lopahin in the earlier version pales beside Bill Paterson's Lopahin of the later version; as does Anthony Hopkins' Astrov beside Ian Holm's Astrov.
But while Anthony Hopkins falls short of realizing Dr Astrov as fully as Ian Holm, he's absolutely magnificent as Andrei, the gambling-addicted brother of Masha, Olga and Irina in "The Three Sisters." It's Janet Suzman, though, who steals the show with her portrayal of Masha, married since age 18 to a man she found "clever" at the time but has come to dislike, even despise, since meeting and falling madly in love with a military officer who, as it turns out, is not only married already but, because of his regiment's new orders, almost literally just passing through the area. One of Chekhov's greatest themes - almost an obsession - is the peculiar notion entertained by virtually all his characters that, though no one living in the present is truly happy or ever will be, everyone in the future will be; and that it's the highest mission of those alive today to make sure this future happiness of the human race comes to fruition. Chekhov is, of course, poking fun at the absurdity of people doing absolutely nothing to bring happiness into their own lives while imagining that they're somehow paving the way for those who will come after them. Ironically, this "happiness" the main characters despair of never obtaining comes easily and simply to the "lesser" characters, as evidenced by "The Three Sisters'" old Nanny, whose new found residence - a rent-free room with her own bed - has made her the happiest person who ever lived, although, equally ironically, it is only Olga's generosity that enables Nanny's happiness. In fact, it is a sense of "noblesse oblige" among the central characters of all three plays that helps bring about their downfall. In "The Three Sisters," especially the first act, Chekhov comes closest to truly creating a farce; but, again, the genuine pathos of the Sisters' lives soon elevates the play to a much higher level. Besides which, though the characters in "The Three Sisters" endlessly ramble on philosophically about work and happiness and the future, they are far more the victims of circumstances beyond their control than those of either of the other two major plays.
And just as "The Three Sisters" have the least control over their own lives and least responsibility for their plight, the characters of "The Cherry Orchard" have the greatest control and, therefore, the greatest responsibility. They simply cannot bear to look full face at the catastrophe barreling down upon them. The wealthy son of a former serf, Lopahin, offers them over and over a way out of their dilemma; but, over and over, they refuse even to discuss it. And so, they end up losing their home, their land and their cherished Orchard - the great irony being that the only way they could have saved their inheritance would have been to lease everything for summer cottages; so, no matter what, their Orchard was destined for destruction, though not necessarily so their personal fortunes.
Destruction of woodlands is also featured prominently in "Uncle Vanya," though not in the same dire manner as in "The Cherry Orchard." Dr Astrov's great passion in life is documenting the growing deforestation of the area of Russia they live in; he even shows a series of charts he's drawn to Yelena, the young wife of the scholar Serabryakov. Both Astrov and Vanya have fallen in love with Yelena; and while she would return Astrov's affections if she could, she ultimately doesn't. Vanya has come to loathe Serabryakov as the root of all his life's misery, having struggled and nearly exhausted his own inheritance in order to help prop up the self-important scholar. David Warner is superb as Vanya - though Freddie Jones in the earlier version is equally superb. As already mentioned, Ian Holm is superb as Astrov; and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is truly magnificent as Yelena. "Uncle Vanya" is, by far, the most focused of the three major plays; and, as such, comes off as the greatest of the three. In truth, though I probably stand alone on this, I consider "Uncle Vanya" to be second only to Shakespeare's "King Lear" as the greatest play ever written.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
One of the best Vanyas ever in EnglishMay 5 2009
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I have not had time to go through this entire set, but have watched the included version of Uncle Vanya with Ken Jones as Vanya and a young Anthony Hopkins as the doctor. Jones is one of the best Vanyas I have seen; his histrionics are presented in a sustained crescendo that ends in a state of absolute meltdown. Vanya is a very difficult role since the actor must constantly ride this wave of emotion without blowing it. Jones is remarkable, so is Anthony Hopkins as Astrov and Jennifer Armitage as Sonja. There seem to be some minor liberties with the text but it all works well.
17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
MARVELLOUS!Oct. 13 2008
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THIS IS A MARVELLOUS COLLECTION OF GREAT THEATRE. I WISH I HAD THE CHANCE TO STIMULATE THE BBC TO PRODUCE MORE OF THESE COLLECTIONS. I AM SURE THEY HAVE A LOT OF EXCELLENT STRAIGHT PLAYS TO BE OFFERED, SO I HOPE ....AND LET ME KEEP MY FINGERS CROSSED. ERNESTO OPPICELLI - VIA CERTOSA 1A 3 - 16159 GENOVA CERTOSA/ITALY firstname.lastname@example.org
30 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Sabotaged by low production valuesApril 6 2010
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The other reviews of this collection are quite favorable. Because of them, I quite looked forward to watching these films versions of Chekhov's --- I've read the plays but haven't had the opportunity to see them on stage so this seemed a way to do it on the cheap --- but a little less than halfway through the series, I found myself being unable to justify the time commitment necessary to finish. There are several things reasons for this reaction.
First, the plays, I'm afraid, just look bad. I don't know much about the history of film technology but there's something 'off' about the look of the shows that is typical of the 1970s and 1980s television. Colors aren't quite right and I couldn't suspend disbelief and imagine myself in nineteenth-century Russia. I kept thinking, "I'm watching something made in the 1980s. I'm watching something made in the 1980s. . ." So if you're a very visual person and associate DVDs with gorgeousness, consider yourself warned: there's a reason why you get so many plays for fifty bucks. (And in Platonov there's visible deterioration of the film at one point.)
The second reason I found myself abandoning this series is there's a second kind of low quality, a kind you can accept in live performances but not in film productions. Specifically, there's a disconnectedness that comes from having too small a budget to get all the details right. So characters complain about the heat but don't look hot, a fireworks display looks canned, etc.
Third, the acting is erratic and that is lethal when it comes to Chekhov. So many of his characters are bored out their minds because they want the excitement of the city but for various reasons are trapped on rural estates. This is what I personally find so memorable about Chekhov, but it's quite a tight-wire for an actor to pull off because they need to convey that listlessness without having the audience feel that way themselves. So with the play-within-a-play in The Seagull, the actors have to make it convincing that someone in the audience would protest how odd it is --- without losing the real audience. Not everyone seems up to the task. Likewise, in Chekhov's plays, there is often a character who has undue hold over the other characters and it's no mean feat to convey their extraordinary seductive appeal. I'm not sure any actor can do certain of these roles well. (The actress for which Platonov was written rejected it, which makes sense: it's hard to understand why the main woman would be enthralled with an unsuccessful alcoholic teacher.)
The fourth problem is a very unexpected as I expected it to be a strength of the series: the `brand name actors' (e.g., Rex Harrison, Stephen Rhea, Dumbledore) are quite good but unfortunately it's usually in a privately intense way. It's like the actors prepared their lines in isolation but didn't have much time to rehearse together.
And finally, it seems like the main female characters have the worst lines. In these productions, their behavior comes across as histrionic and unmotivated. It makes me want to reread Chekhov with an eye towards his treatment of women.
So I completely respect the more positive views and wish I could share their feelings, but I do think potential buyers should consider a purchase with a realistic sense of the production values. (And part of me wishes that this collection sells well to tempt the BBC to redo these plays. Compare their old Jane Austens to their recent productions!)
If you can, however, get this collection via your local library, check out the 1991 Uncle Vanya. In it, you can already see the BBC's march toward quality. At times, it's moving despite its idiosyncratic flaws, the biggest of which is the camera work: it relies so heavily on close-ups that you can't even tell the actors' physical relationship toward one another (e.g., whose on the left, whose on the right). This adaption has some other problems as well --- the men's reactions to one woman are dictated by her plainness but the actress is anything but --- yet the production does have an ensemble cast that seems to believe in and embody their characters. David Warner and Ian Holm in particular are a pleasure to watch. [Postscript a few days later: just found out that the director of the 1991 Uncle Vanya the same year married the actress who played the woman who was supposed to be 'plain'. I think he probably knew that he was miscasting her. . .]