Downton Abbey actor Peter Egan appears in National Theatre’s Chekhov trilogy

Adrian Lukis, Peter Egan and Nicholas Day in rehearsals. Picture: Johan Persson

Adrian Lukis, Peter Egan and Nicholas Day in rehearsals. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Egan acts alongside Nicholas Day and Pride and Prejudice’s Adrian Lukis

A trio of early plays by playwright Anton Chekhov reveal his psychological insight into the human condition says actor Peter Egan.

Following a successful run at Chichester, the Young Chekhov season featuring new translations by Hampstead writer David Hare transfers to the National Theatre this month.

Egan appears in Ivanov and The Seagull, but the opening play is Chekhov’s first full scale work Platonov, a comedy about the complex love life of a married provincial schoolmaster.

“Chekhov had an amazing ability to observe and record a society in the most delicate detail,” says Egan.

“He wrote these plays in his 20s and 30s. I’m just amazed at his observations about human beings and the interconnectedness between people.

“He shows us their aspirations and deceits. He wrote them before psychology and Freud yet he observes them as a psychologist would in the 20th Century.

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“It’s as resonant today as when he wrote them.”

Written between 1878 and 1895 the second play Ivanov is about a melancholy government official wrestling with debts, internal conflicts and a sick wife.

The Seagull deals with the tangled affairs of a famous writer, a fading actress, her aspiring playwright son and a young ingénue holidaying together on the coast.

“The Seagull is the first really naturalistic play in international literature but what surprises me is how emotionally relevant certain scenes in the play are about relationships,” says the Hampstead-based actor who helped found local rescue charity All Dogs Matter.

“Ivanov is dealing with a deep sense of discontent and depression and has lost direction in life.

“Events have overwhelmed him and he is clearly suffering from a breakdown but has no reference to deal with it so he bangs his head emotionally against a wall.”

Egan plays Ivanov’s uncle Count Shabelsky, a geriatric buffoon who shows tenderness towards the anti-hero’s ailing wife.

In the Seagull he plays actress Arkadina’s dying brother Sorin.

“Shabelsky is a high energy character in a setting where everyone is suffering from depression of one kind or another, and Sorin a very sad and low energy character musing on all the loss and underachievement in his life.

“It’s a total contrast, the kind of thing I love doing.

“It’s wonderful being part of an ensemble where you join for a time and do a series of parts.”

Egan whose five decade career spans myriad stage roles, TV sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles and more recently Downton Abbey and crime thriller Unforgotten, says there are themes linking the plays.

“You see a society in decline overwhelmed by a landscape that’s too big for people to deal with.

“These are people living in very rural situations who only have each other and become very emotionally intertwined.

“You see how unmanageable the size of the country and society is and why it’s moving towards revolution”

He is full of praise for Hare and director Jonathan Kent.

“These plays range from delicate pieces revealing characters’ interior life to great extremes of high comedy but David Hare has managed to pay tribute to the truth and intent of the originals.

“He is brilliant at unlocking the image and making it more colloquial.

“I am at a time in my life when nothing is driven by career or financial concerns.

“I only want to do work that balances my passionate commitment to animal welfare and working with directors like Jonathan who has a complete commitment, honesty and unrelenting desire to create immediacy on stage so everything is in the moment and never feels false.”

He admits some are put off by the Russian playwright.

But despite there being two suicides and a murder in the trilogy adds: “a lot of people think it’s just boring depressed people. But this is fascinating and challenging.”

Until Oct 8