The Russian Doctor: Introducing a new performance piece inspired by Chekhov's experiences in medicine

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.” - Anton Chekhov*

A team comprising a performer-choreographer, neuroscientist, theatre designer, academic biographer, playwright-librettist, medical historian, pop composer, video image-makers and an opera director has taken inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s little-known work of non-fiction 'Sakhalin Island' and his death-defying journey across Siberia to create a new piece of physical theatre for 2014, 'The Russian Doctor'.

Anton Chekhov is the second most performed playwright in the world (after Shakespeare). He was also a physician. In 1890, with a successful short story writing career but only limited theatrical acclaim, he journeyed alone for three months across 5,000 miles of Siberian wilderness to make good on his commitment to medicine. His destination was the remote Tsarist penal colony of Sakhalin Island, his aim to document the harrowing living conditions of the 10,000 exiles and convicts incarcerated there.

'The Russian Doctor' explores what Chekhov was really seeking on Sakhalin, what he found there and how his self-imposed exile affected him. The oft-forgotten element of Chekhov’s legacy 'Sakhalin Island' (1893/4) - a chronicle of his experiences and his only published work of social science - was followed by publication of his four great plays, 'The Seagull' (first performed 1896), 'Uncle Vanya' (1898), 'The Three Sisters' (1901) and 'The Cherry Orchard' (1904).

The Russian Doctor’s creative team is led by theatre artist Andrew Dawson (Absence and Presence, Wallace and Gromit, Pandora 88, Dr. Atomic, The Pearl Fishers) with scenic designer Vicki Mortimer (National Theatre, Donmar, Young Vic) and video designers 59 Productions (London 2012, Met Opera, V&A). Academic expertise is from leading Chekhov authority Donald Rayfield ('Anton Chekhov: A Life', 'Stalin and His Hangmen') and neuroscientist Jonathan Cole ('Pride and a Daily Marathon', 'The Man Who'). The project is supported by an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, and by Bristol Old Vic and Winchester University.

The project was conceived in March 2011. It was nurtured in 2012 through a visit to Sakhalin Island and the translation from Russian to English of 7,500 of Chekhov’s Sakhalin census cards with the support of a Wellcome Trust Research and Development grant. Performance life began on 10 September 2013 in a rehearsal studio in Hoxton. 'The Russian Doctor' will be performed as a work in progress at Theatre Royal Winchester in March 2014, with further dates to be announced.

Donald Rayfield, Chekhov biographer and collaborator on 'The Russian Doctor', said: "Chekhov's most important achievement in his own eyes was not a body of plays or stories: it was his self-sacrificing journey across Siberia to the penal island of Sakhalin, the painstaking enquiry he undertook into conditions there, and the extensive exposé he wrote on his return. It is time that admirers of the writer saw how important and original were the achievements of Chekhov the doctor. Dramatising this journey to a modern hell will lead to a revolution in the way we regard Chekhov the writer and the man."

Meroë Candy, Arts Adviser from the Wellcome Trust, added: "Chekhov’s experiences as a medical practitioner are not very well known, and yet are integral to his life story and thus his literary renown. The Wellcome Trust is delighted to support The Russian Doctor team as they explore this aspect of Chekhov and bring his work, struggles and achievements as a doctor to life."

For more information, visit The Russian Doctor website or follow @TheRussianDr on Twitter.

*Anton Chekhov, Letter to A S Suvorin, 11 September 1888.