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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Zoe Wanamaker and Tim McMullan/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The first thing you hear is a train whistle. Next a telephone rings. That’s followed by a dog barking, a honking automobile horn, more dogs, and then a cascade of off-stage laughter.

This production, conspicuously poised on the cusp of the modern, is annoying a lot of people. There has been some harsh controversy over the appropriateness of Andrew Upton’s adaptation, which the National Theatre has dubbed a “version.” One major critic even suggested that he and his script should be thrown into the Thames.

A close friend of mine went to one of the first previews where someone in the audience actually yelled out, “It’s not meant to be funny.” Director Howard Davies and star Zoe Wanamaker, who is playing the flighty, virtually bankrupt landowner Ranyevskaya, appear to have taken this admonition to heart. By the time the show officially opened there was hardly a single grandstanding comic incident on view.

Like Shakespeare, Chekhov is subject to endless permutations of interpretation. Each production should reveal something new to us. Here I felt, as never before, that despite the political upheaval churning on the horizon, Russia – at least backwards provincial Russia – is actually being abandoned.

For all Ranyevskaya’s cooing about her childhood home and its glorious orchard, she is really a stranger here. Indeed, it is patently obvious that she would still be in Paris if only her lover had not behaved so badly. It’s clear that she had been paying the bills until he somehow overstepped the mark.

She’s been abroad for a decade and has never bothered to send any monies back to Russia for maintenance. (The superb wooden sets designed by Bunny Christie are all but dilapidated, and no one other than Ranyevskaya wears anything approaching fashionable clothes.)

She has more glamour than this place deserves or knows what to do with. But with her alcoholic husband dead and her son drowned in the river at the bottom of the orchard, Ranyevskaya is trying to fool herself with nostalgic effusions of love for time and place. It almost works. She is fascinatingly, irritatingly filled with contradictions. Sensuous and utterly feminine, self-absorbed and fickle, she is a woman who cannot live without a man. And she doesn’t care if that turns her into a fool. 

Her only true equal – ironic, since his father was born a serf – is Lopakhin (Conleth Hill). He strives to make it clear that he is not her adversary but actually her sole ally. If only Ranyevskaya would listen to him, and swallow her misplaced pride, she could be back in Paris like a shot while simultaneously wiping out all her debts and those unwanted memories. Yet, because there are class barriers in play, she refuses to accept the obvious solution, which he is offering. More fool she.

All the other characters cling to her, each for their own reasons. She, however, is a dangerously untrustworthy anchor.

This cast works well together. Nods must go to Claudie Blakley as Varya, her spinsterish adopted daughter; James Laurenson as her dim brother, Gaev; and especially Kenneth Cranham as Firs, her decrepit butler.

Also outstanding is Gerald Kyd as Yasha. His indolently louche swagger suggests


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