Adapted from At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov, freely adapted by Shamila Chaudry and Alessandra De Martino.
First performed as part of Playing with Prose, 4 August 2020
Cast: Kirsten Foster, Jack Tarlton, Abigail Lawrie, Arthur Hughes, Mohammed Mansaray and Madeleine Worrall
Pyotr Vasilisa’s old husband
Yefimya Their daughter
Andrei Krisanfych Yefimya’s husband
The General Patient at the Water clinic
Narrator (will be done by projecting the words on the big screen on the Upstage Centre)
SCENE 1 – What shall I write?
The story is set in a Russian village, in present times. The stage is divided into two main sections.
On STAGE LEFT is YEFIMYA’s accommodation, lit with a dimmed blue light. ANDREY KRISANFYCH is sitting on a chair, scrolling down his mobile phone.
On STAGE RIGHT is the family home village inn, lit with a warm, soft light; YEGOR is sitting at a table in an unpretentious restaurant. He is watching Christmas Carol videos from YouTube on his laptop. He is joined by VASILISA and PYOTR, who arrive, from UPSTAGE RIGHT
Russian Christmas music is playing in the background whilst the NARRATOR’s words appear in a sequence on screen, as YEGOR writes them on his laptop. He will write both the NARRATOR’s words and the letter dictated by VASILISA
NARRATOR – Vasilisa has not seen her daughter for four years. Her daughter Yefimya has gone to live in St Petersburg with her husband after her wedding, and she has sent two letters. But then it is if she has disappeared without trace; there has been no news at all. They needed to send her a letter, but her old man cannot write, and there was no one to ask.
But then Christmas came, Vasilisa could bear it no longer, so she went to the inn to see Yegor, the landlady’s brother, an arrogant and boisterous young man, who has been sitting at home doing nothing ever since he has finished his military service; people say he can write a good letter, if you paid him enough. Vasilisa had a word with Yegor and they settled on a price of one thousand rubles. (music fades away)
YEGOR – (opens a new document and gets ready to write). What shall I write, then?
VASILISA – Hang on! (looking at him angrily and suspiciously). Don’t rush me! It’s not as if you’re writing for nothing, we are paying you after all! Well alright, I’m ready now. Dear son-in-law, Andrey Khrisanfych, and our beloved only daughter Yefimia Petrovna, we bow deeply to you and send our love and our parental blessing, which will be there always.
YEGOR – Right, got that. Fire away!
VASILISA – And we wish you a happy Christmas. We are alive and well, and we hope you are too, with all the blessing of the Lord… the King in Heaven.
VASILISA stops to think, and exchanges glances with the old man.
NARRATOR – Many things have happened in the village in all these years. People have married, people have died. How long the winters have been, and how long the nights!
YEGOR – Blimey! It’s hot in here! (unbuttoning his waistcoat). The temperature must be seventy! Well, what next? I haven’t got much time!
The old people are silent.
YEGOR – I’ll prompt you, then. What does your son-in-law do?
PYOTR – (with a feeble voice) He was in the army, if you remember. He finished his service the same time as you. He was a soldier, and now he’s in St Petersburg, at a clinic where they have water treatments. The doctor treats sick people with water. He works for the doctor as the doorman.
VASILISA – It’s all written here, (she takes a letter out of her handkerchief). We got it from Yefimya, goodness knows when. Maybe they aren’t even alive anymore.
YEGOR thinks for a while, and then starts writing quickly.
SCENE 2 – Live letter writing
Whilst YEGOR types the letter, what is being written shows on the big screen, where the spelling errors he makes will appear underlined in red, accompanied by YEGOR’s voice, reading them.
NARRATOR – Yegor is idle, incompetent and careless. He is vulgarity itself – crude, arrogant, unassailable vulgarity, proud to have been born and brought up in an inn.
YEGOR – At the present time, seeing that fate has sent you to the Milittary Spheere, we advise you to have a look at the Statutes of Dissiplinary Penelties and the Criminal Laws of the War Dipartment, and you will see in the Law there a sivilization of the Ranks of the War Dipartment.
VASILISA – We should be writing about the hardships of last year, about the shortage of grain we have had and that we had to sell our cows. We should ask her for money, and I should tell Yefimya that Pyotr has been very sick. (To YEGOR) How could you put that into words? What do you say before and afterwards? You know, we are simple people, we need your help.
YEGOR – (carrying on writing) Pay attention to the fifth volume of the Milittary Regulations. Soldier is a Common and Universel Term. The General at the Topp and Private at the Bottom is called a soldier…
PYOTR – (moving his lips, says softly) Wouldn’t be a bad thing to see our grandchildren.
VASILISA – (looking at him crossly) What grandchildren? Maybe there aren’t any! Don’t talk nonsense, you’re just an old man.
YEGOR – (in a casual tone) Grandchildren, you mean? But maybe there are. Who knows? … And so therefor you can tell, who is our External enemy and who is our Innternal enemy. Our most Innternal Enemy is Bacchus.
NARRATOR – Vasilisa knows very well that he is vulgar, but cannot put it into words. Her head is aching from his voice, and the unintelligible words; her thoughts have become confused, she cannot say anything, she cannot think straight, and is just dying for him to finish all his writing. But the old man trusts his old woman, who has brought him here, and he trusts Yegor; and when he mentioned the water treatment clinic, it is clear from the expression on his face that he trusts the clinic and the healing power of water.
After YEGOR has written it all down, he stands up and reads it out loud from the beginning. The old man does not understand anything but nods his head trustingly.
YEGOR – That’s all right, that is; real smooth. Yes, it’s all right. Your good health. That’s a real work of art that is…now can we see about payment?
VASILISA – (putting one thousand rubles on the table). There you go, this is the payment we agreed on for your service. Now print the letter and bring it to me this evening, I want to post it tomorrow first thing.
YEGOR – Sure, that’ll be done. Cheerio! (leaves walking decisively towards UPSTAGE RIGHT).
PYOTR and VASILISA remain seated, PYOTR staring straight ahead of him, like a blind man with complete trust written all over his face, VASILISA, with a bitter expression on her face. Then they get up and walk slowly towards UPSTAGE CENTRE. Before exiting, VASILISA turns around and says:
VASILISA – (spotlight on her) Ugh… what scum!
SCENE 3 – The night vigil
VASILISA appears DOWNSTAGE CENTRE, spotlight on her. She is lying down on an old fashioned double mattress, turning and tossing. She is agitated and sweaty. YEGOR comes back with his laptop and sits at the inn’s table. In the background the same Christmas Carols as before play. Revolving Starry Night lights are projected on the whole theatre’s ceiling.
NARRATOR – Worried by her thoughts, the old woman cannot sleep all night, thinking of her daughter. She cannot rest, the mattress feels like a bed of thorns. Then at dawn she gets up and says her prayers and sets off for the station to post the letter. The station is eight miles away.
SCENE 4 – Water treatment clinic
ANDREY KHRISANFYCH is the doorman standing at the Dr B. O. Moselweiser’s water treatment clinic MID STAGE LEFT. The lighting of the scene is BRIGHT BLUE. He is dressed in a military uniform with new piping on his lapels and his boots are particularly shiny. He dusts his uniform down and smartens himself up and stands taller as he wishes everyone who arrives Happy new year and season’s greetings and goes back to scrolling through his mobile phone.
A set of footsteps approach, and ANDREY shrinks in his stature and looks slightly nervous but then takes a military stance. It is the GENERAL of Afro Russian origin, a regular visitor to the clinic, dressed in his military uniform, ENTERS UPSTAGE RIGHT. ANDREY helps the general take off his coat.
ANDREY – Happy New Year and season’s greetings to you and your excellency!
GENERAL – Thank you, my friend. And same to you.
As the general walks in he nods towards a door on the right.
GENERAL – What’s in this room?
ANDREY – That’s the massage room, your excellency!
The GENERAL walks away and exits UPSTAGE CENTRE and as his footsteps die down ANDREY returns to his confident self by standing taller. He walks to the newly delivered mail, looks through the letters and takes one addressed to his wife and opens it to read a few lines. He then walks down the corridor, while still scrolling on his mobile phone.
Scene 5 – Missing home
ANDREY enters his room UPSTAGE LEFT and his wife YEFIMYA is feeding a baby on the bed, there is clutter, her dress is dirty and there is a Moses basket next to the bed. The sounds of their other two children aged 2 and 3 years old can be heard as they play OFF STAGE. He hands her the letter.
ANDREY – (dismissive) Must be from the Village.
YEFIMYA – Finally, a response after all these years to letters you sent for me… (she meekly asks) You did send them, didn’t you?
ANDREY – Of course I did! How dare you doubt me! (Crossly) I’m a busy man. I cannot waste my time with all this nonsense.
YEFIMYA shrinks away in fear and turns her attention to the letter.
YEFIMYA – (feebly) I’m sorry.
ANDREY then pauses on his way out and reaches into a drawer with his back to his wife and sneakily takes two letters out of the drawer and puts them into his jacket’s pocket. He then walks out his eyes not leaving his phone and is a few metres away from the door. YEFIMYA begins to read the first few lines. Tears fill up her eyes.
YEFIMYA – (excited, cuddles the baby in her arms closer and kisses it) – It’s from granny and grandpa from the village….” Dear son-in-law, Andrei Khrisanfych, and our beloved only daughter Yefimia Petrovna, we bow deeply to you and send our love and our parental blessing, which will be there always. And we wish you a happy Christmas. We are alive and well, and we hope you are too, with all the blessing of…
ANDREY in the corridor begins to burn the letters with his lighter and stamps out the ashes while YEFIMYA looks up in joyful wonder. The village scene STAGE RIGHT comes to life with a WARM LIGHT and the parents are sitting at the table laughing and enjoying their meal.
YEFIMYA – (dreamily) There will be snow piled up beneath the roofs by now… the trees will be all white. The kiddies will be out on their little sledges… And bold old grandpa will be lying on the stove… with the little yellow dog… my dear family!
ANDREY moves a little closer to the door and listens attentively.
YEFIMYA – And there will be little hares jumping in the fields… (wiping away her tears, kisses her little boy).
YEFIMYA – Grandpa is kind and gentle, Granny is kind too, and very understanding. They live a good life in the country, they fear God… And there is a little church in the village, and the men sing in the choir… Holy Mother of God, heavenly protector, if only you could take us away from here!
ANDREY begins to walk like the general and takes a few steps back into the room. YEFIMYA immediately stops talking and wipe the tears from her eyes as her lips tremble. He lights a cigarette takes a few pulls while glowering at his wife who grows more and more uncomfortable. ANDREY puts his cigarette out. The Doorbell rings and ANDREY sets off down the corridor to answer it.
Scene 6 – Charcot shower-bath
ANDREY meets the GENERAL looking all pink and fresh from his bath in a bathrobe and flip flops. He points to a door.
GENERAL – Ah! here you are Andrey. And what goes on in this room?
ANDREY – (stands up straight in attention in a military fashion) The Charcot shower-bath, your excellency!
At the same time, YEGOR enters STAGE LEFT with his laptop and sits down at the table. SPOTLIGHT ON HIM. He types in Google search ‘Charcot Bath’ and scrolls through a few pages. Then stops on a picture and definition of a Charcot Shower-bath that is projected on BACK CENTRE STAGE and is left there while the audience exit and YEGOR starts typing away.