The trouble with productions of Chekhov is that if they keep within what is normally (mis)understood to be a conventional "Chekhovian" register, they are likely to be (whisper it softly) on the dull side, whereas if they strike out beyond the usual furrow of semi-sentimental bourgeois tristesse, they often prove wildly misjudged. In neither case is the evening likely to prove glowing, but at least in the latter instance there may be something fresh to say in a review.
Sonia Fraser's production for York's Theatre Royal, unluckily for you and me, falls into the first category. Within the limits of that "Chekhovian" style, it is carried off perfectly well, and one or two elements are excellent, such as Madame Ranyevskaya and her brother Gaev's delicate disdain for the arrivisme of Lopakhin. Similarly, some moments are minor but not catastrophic failures: Gaev's verbal tic of reciting billiard shots is unaccompanied by matching gestures, and the otherwise finely judged slapstick of the clerk Yepikhodov, a walking "disaster area", is entirely unaccompanied by the squeaking he complains of in his new boots.
For the most part, though, this is an evening of genteel sensibilities in terms of material and presentation alike. John Mortimer's new version is smooth and efficient but lacking in any distinctive note. As Madame Ranyevskaya, Miriam Margolyes allows her natural fizz to surface only briefly in Act Three, at the moment when she inadvertently insults Trofimov; the rest of the time she gives a first-rate but at bottom unengaging reading of amiable middle-class unworldliness. Simon Coury's Lopakhin has a north London twang just strong enough to register, not to abrade against the Ranyevskys' mellifluousness. Fraser's directorial interpretation is so polite that she cannot even bear to let the impassioned radicalism of the "eternal student" Trofimov obtrude; Peter Lee Wilson (dressed like a 1970s student into the bargain) gives these speeches a more natural ring than I have hitherto heard in them, if equally ineffectual in the world in which his character finds himself.
Designer Adrian Rees places the down-at-heel ball of Act Three in front of a curtain depicting a dozen or so enormous Klimt women, presumably to emphasise the decadent falling-off of the Ranyevskys and their like. But the chuckles which the words and actions elicit (never outright laughs – that would be too un-Chekhovian for us, even though Chekhov himself described the play as "in places even a farce") remain fundamentally sympathetic; they are given by an audience disinclined to deprecate its own decadence, to a production too polite to actually throw the darts of social commentary with which the author has deliberately furnished it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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