I believe that the first and foremost quality of Chekhov’s plays is the hallmark Russian melancholy that results from the characters’ sharp understanding of the social, cultural, psychological, you-name-it forces that crush them into the inability to change circumstances. In his staging for both the BAM and The Old Vic Theatre, when director Sam Mendes replaced that for a certain cynicism, the results were simply cold, uninvolved and unaffecting – the slow poetic tempo that give Chekhov’s lines the necessary depth of feeling basically lost and all motivations seem a collection of loose ends in a world closer to Woody Allen than to Russian theatre.
The main victim of the concept is the usually excellent Sinéad Cusack. Ranevskaya is supposed to be an aristocrat whose elegance and generosity of spirit is supposed to invite admiration even of those who would like to see the end of aristocracy, but Cusack sounds just awkward, plebeian, delivering her lines with a Fran Drescher-like nasal voice. The only side of this character who could make sense in such approach is that of the debauchée who leads a scandalous affair in Paris, but that side is only hinted at in the play.
Anya is a difficult role, a certain girlishness must be reconciled with the sharpness that kids who are more practical than her parents usually have – but Morven Christie seems to glide through the play without much interest. Although Simon Russell Beale is physically miscast as Lopakhin, he savors his lines more noticeably, although his act III volte-face is a bit lost amid the director’s misunderstandings. I similarly did not get Selina Cadell’s George Sand-like Charlotta. I am sure the character is a bit over-the-top, but here she seems an alien who has just landed from another play.
Paul Jesson, Dakin Matthews, Josh Hamilton, Tobias Segal and Richard Easton offer satisfying performances as Gaev, Simeonov-Pishchik, Yasha, Yepikhodov and Firs, but everything lacks the last sparkle of feeling. Ethan Hawke is the kind of actor who needs a director, and here the underlying meanings hidden in Trofimov’s lines are lost and replaced by a general sense of enthusiasm. If Rebecca Hall is closer to the mark it is because Varya is the acknowledgedly “depressed” character in the play and that probably explains why the director might have left her unbothered.
Anthony Ward’s sets are simple and efficient, Catherine Zuber’s costumes are beautiful and Paul Arditti’s sountrack is original and atmospheric but too ominous for the circumstances