ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is Robert Siegel. This week, a British production of Chekhov's 1895 play, 'The Seagull,' opened on Broadway to great expectations and rave reviews.
Mr. MACKENZIE CROOK (Actor): (As Konstantin) I don't believe in any of you. I don't believe in you or him. All he can do is drink beer and make love to all the women.
Ms. Kristin Scott Thomas (Actress): (As Arkadina) Degenerate!
Mr. CROOK: (As Konstantin) Go back to your beloved theater and keep on acting in your pathetic trivial plays.
Ms. THOMAS: (As Arkadina) I have never acted in play of that description.
SIEGEL: That's Kristin Scott Thomas and Mackenzie Crook. You may remember her from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The English Patient," and him from the original English TV show The Office." They play mother and son, the two most compelling characters in a group of Russians who gather at a country estate. 'The Seagull' is both funny and tragic. It is about love and success and family and theater. This production is described as a new version by Christopher Hampton who joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON (Academy Award Winning British Playwright): Thank you.
SIEGEL: And I should say, Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay for 'Atonement, The Quiet American' and 'Dangerous Liaisons' and many other films. What does a new version of 'The Seagull' actually mean?
Mr. HAMPTON: Well, it means that I don't speak Russian, I think. Otherwise, we would just call it a translation. I did it to a year in Russian at high school but that doesn't qualify to translate one of the best writers in the world. So I needed to work with - which I did and have done in the other Chekhov plays that I've translated, "Three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya" - with a genuine Russian who guides me through the piece. And what we're looking for is to really try to fathom exactly what Chekhov's intentions were and to reproduce them to make the audience laugh when he wanted them to laugh and to make them cry when he wanted them to cry.
SIEGEL: In the clip that we just heard, at the moment when we heard Kristin Scott Thomas playing Arkadina saying "Degenerate!" In an older translation, I've seen her say "That is a talk of a decadent."
Mr. HAMPTON: Well, there we are. That's why they get new translations done every so often.
SIEGEL: 'Decadent' just doesn't have really the 21st century ring to it that degenerate does.
Mr. HAMPTON: Yes. But I think 'degenerate' is the - I mean, one thing that I always pay attention to is the number of words in the sentence in the original and Chekhov has these one word, there's a series of one word insults traded between mother and son which is much, much more powerful than saying "that's what I call a decadent" or somehow, we have a tendency to dilute what in Chekhov was very crisp and sort of quite blunt, actually. Chekhov used to be thought of as a lyrical melancholy kind of writer and he isn't. He's a very muscular, energetic, clear, lucid writer.
SIEGEL: So part of what you're doing here is undoing the sometimes wordy literalness of prior translations to get it more concise.
Mr. HAMPTON: Well, that's right. And I discovered that right away when the first play I did of his - was "Uncle Vanya" - long time ago in the seventies when I was a resident writer of the Royal Court Theater in London and they asked me to do "Uncle Vanya." In the very first line of the play which is usually translated as "Have a cup of tea, dear," or "Why don't you come over here and sit down and have a cup of tea, dear?" In Russian, it's two words. "Tea, dear" she says in a rather peremptory way and sets the tone for the scene and that for some reason, we got this image fixed in our heads a long time ago and the very first Chekhov production I ever saw was a legendary "Uncle Vanya" with Lawrence Olivier and Michael Redgrave and Joan Plowright. And that was, it was beautiful but it was very sort autumnal and lyrical and hopeless and it didn't have the sort of edginess, I think, that startled Russian audiences so much when 'The Seagull' was first done, of course, in Russia.
It was such received so badly by the audience that Chekhov fled from the theater and vowed never to write for the theater again. And fortunately, it was Stanislavsky who rescued The Seagull and remounted it, and persuaded Chekhov to come back and see it properly done. And then the play was a huge success and to that we owe the other three plays, the three later plays, great plays which he would have never written because he was a great short story writer and that's what he was happy doing and the theater might easily have lost him.
SIEGEL: I happened to interview the novelist, Ian McEwan. Just shortly after he had seen "Atonement," the movie made of his (unintelligible), he was very happy of what he saw and he mentioned to me that he had cautioned at least the director but I think, you as well, that his novel is about a story teller, which is about story telling. Don't get too carried away with the love story, he said. So my question to you is which is better - to have the living McEwan around to tell you what he thinks about the screenplay or for Chekhov to be safely dead for many...
Mr. HAMPTON: Well, that's a very good question. No, I fortunately had a very good relationship with Ian who understands about movies. He's written some himself. 'Atonement' is a novel about a writer and of course, "The Seagull" is - from my view - pretty well, the best play that exists about writers and actors. And that's why theater people love the play so much.
SIEGEL: But how much running room do you think Anton Chekhov has left you here? Or do you have some imaginary dialog with the playwright, whether you're honoring his intent or not?
Mr. HAMPTON: Well, I want to and I love Chekhov very much, actually. And I had a great thrill last week. I went to his house in Yalta, the house where he ended his life. He died at 44, much too young of consumption of tuberculosis. And he was a doctor and he knew it was coming. So he built this house, really his sort of dream house where he was wife who is an actress mostly in Moscow came to visit him now and then and he lived there with his sister. And it was sort of extraordinary to be there and feel and see the desk on which she'd written Three Sisters, and the cherry orchard, looking out at the sea through the trees. And I felt very close to him. And I've worked, the Vanya translation that I did which we did with Paul Scofield at the Royal Court was more than 35 years ago now so I feel I've refreshed myself at the well of Chekhov many times during my life.
SIEGEL: Christopher Hampton, thank you very much.
Mr. HAMPTON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
SIEGEL: We've been talking with Christopher Hampton about his new version of Anton Chekhov's play, "The Seagull." It opened this week on Broadway. At our website, you can see video of the scene that you heard at the start in which Arkadina calls Konstantin a 'degenerate.' That's at npr.org.
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