The Old Vic, London SE1
  Opened 9 June, 2009
**** / ***

Sam Mendes’ longest suit as a theatre director is micro-management. As an actor in a student show he directed over 20 years ago I watched, fascinated, as he showed his company semiotic, intellectual and emotional paths through the knottiest playtext, getting us to understand it and to convey that understanding to an audience. Now as a spectator I relish the same skills in him. And in Simon Russell Beale he has an actor whose intuition and abilities match his own. Beale can strike two or three different moods in the same line and sometimes in the same instant, showing us the complexities and contradictions of a character. As the delusionally jealous Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, he observes his own disgusted insecurity almost as closely as he does the imagined intimacies between his wife Hermione and best friend Polixenes. When he realises how unwarranted his fervour was, but only after the abandonment of his newborn daughter and the death of his son and supposedly also of his wife, his repentance and mortification are in the selfsame key as his jealousy had been (whereas, by comparison, Greg Hicks’ current RSC performance in the same role makes a radical break in mood at this point).
The first pair of plays in Mendes’ venture the Bridge Project (seen in New York earlier this year) mix English and American performers with some deliberation here, more casually in its partner The Cherry Orchard. By and large, Leontes’ court of Sicilia speaks with English accents, inhabitants of Bohemia with American ones; Paul Jesson as Sicilian expatriate Camillo gets a laugh out of trying to disguise his voice in an abysmal Southern-States drawl. Similarly, the Sicilian set seems more old-world (or at best Upper West Side) compared to the country hoedown of the sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia. As the rogue Autolycus, Ethan Hawke animatedly and winningly tries on a range of personae from hobo folk-singer to queeny courtier to Gary Oldman’s Dracula. This is for the most part a fine Winter’s Tale, though not that big on the magicality of Shakespeare’s late plays. Beale has a fine foil in his Hermione, Rebecca Hall. Her very silence and restraint electrify the final scene in which her “statue” comes to life; normally this spark would come from Paulina, the candid friend and dynamic antagonist to Leontes, but Sinead Cusack’s performance is excessively reined-in and formal.
Cusack lets it all hang back out as Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, granting that character’s full quota of self-dramatising twirls and sighs and sobs. Overall, though, it is an oddly cold version of the play; despite Tom Stoppard’s masterly version of the text, we see little of Chekhov’s ambivalence, never mind sympathy, for this disparate group of people frittering away both their individual lives and their collective way of life. Beale’s Lopakhin, the peasant made good, may make explicit his feelings for Ranevskaya (as seldom happens in performance), but elsewhere is almost brutal; in his exaltation at having bought the family estate at auction, the element of triumphalism is rarely shown this nakedly. The twin second-act symbols of the mysterious offstage rumbling noise and the arrival of a peasant beggar are given maximum portentousness, and beginning the third-act party as a sinister slow-motion masque is simply a symbol too far. The most affecting moment is once again shared by Beale and Hall, as Lopakhin proves too cowardly to propose marriage to Ranevskaya’s adoptive daughter Varya. Paul Pyant’s lighting, with its moments of significant shadow and spotlight, adds here to the over-articulation of concept where in The Winter’s Tale it augments the director’s characteristic clarity of interpretation. Chekhov had already made The Cherry Orchard clear enough; Mendes makes it too clear.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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