The TheatreguideLondon Review
(Reviewed in original Cottesloe Theatre production)
There is a moment near the end of the Royal National Theatre's new production of Chekhov when Vanessa Redgrave, as the aristocrat who has lost the family estate, takes one last look around the room she is about to leave forever. Because the play is being done in the round, she actually scans the audience as she turns in a circle. But we don't see ourselves reflected in her eyes - we see the walls her character is seeing.
Redgrave is one of the greatest silent actresses in the world, and that moment of absolute reality is almost worth the price of admission in itself. There's a similar moment earlier, when the memory of her dead child makes her change slowly from silent joy to silent (and then wailing) grief. Chekhov is arguably the second-greatest dramatist in history, but The Cherry Orchard has never moved me as much as his others, until the reality of experience that Redgrave brings to the central role.
Not everything in Trevor Nunn's production lives up to her standard, and there is at least one serious case of miscasting, but I'm now a lot closer to recognizing this play as the equal of The Three Sisters and The Sea Gull.
This is the one about the feckless aristocratic family who simply can't get their minds around the fact that their estate is going to be sold to pay off the mortgage, and of the now-prosperous former peasant who tries to help them but winds up buying it, to cut down and replace with summer cottages for the new middle class.
Vanessa Redgrave is without question the main attraction. Up to now, my favourite Ranevskaya was Penelope Wilton at the RSC, who caught the woman's shallowness and triviality perfectly. But Redgrave's is far more real - however foolish the woman, we experience her from the inside and believe her confusion, her pain, and even her blindness.
Corin Redgrave is a more subdued Gaev than most, less a comic fool than a schoolmasterly type, used to being in control in his very narrow realm, and unaware how often he is out of his depth. Roger Allam, an actor I have always admired, is simply wrong for Lopakhin, too smooth and genteel, unable to show the clumsy peasant beneath his newly prosperous exterior.
Ben Miles as the student Petya and Charlotte Emmerson as Anya make me realize for the first time what a total mismatch the pair are, the humourless revolutionary wannabe and the coddled airhead. Eve Best doesn't let us into long-suffering Varya, and indeed most of the scenes involving the secondary characters drag in this occasionally ponderous three-hours-plus production.
David Lan's new translation is colloquial without being anachronistic, nicely smoothing out the notoriously clumsy attempts of past translations to find equivalents of Russian jokes and idioms. But it is Vanessa Redgrave who drives this revival, and who is the real reason to see it.
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Review - The Cherry Orchard - National 2000