This enterprising theatre ends a season inspired by the Russian revolution with a revival of Chekhov’s final masterpiece. It is played in a version by Trevor Griffiths seen in Nottingham in 1977 but never before in London and given a clear, well-acted production by Mehmet Ergen that I would strongly recommend. But, in supposedly banishing the elegiac English approach to Chekhov, Griffiths is wrestling with phantoms.
Part of Griffiths’ purpose is to show that the wandering student, Trofimov, who envisions a revolutionary future while the family around him are dwelling on the past, is pivotal to the play. Trofimov here imagines years of “unremitting struggle” and, reminding Madame Ranevsky of serfdom’s history, bluntly tells her: “From every tree in your orchard there are people hanging.” But it is decades since directors made Trofimov a joke figure: you have to go back to 1941 where Tyrone Guthrie apparently had him scratching his bottom as he talked of mankind’s future. Griffiths is also too good a dramatist not to reflect Chekhov’s own ironic perspective. While Abhin Galeya’s performance conveys Trofimov’s prophetic passion, it reminds us there is more than a touch of self-righteousness about a radical who claims to be above love.
Far from resetting the agenda, both Ergen’s production and the Griffiths version confirm what has long been acknowledged. Jude Akuwudike’s Lopakhin, who eventually buys the Ranevsky orchard to build summer villas, is clearly driven as much by class-revenge as by social altruism: if there is a hint of savagery about the way he orders the musicians to play according to his taste, it is neither new nor surprising. Sian Thomas also gives a classic portrayal of Ranevsky as a woman who, however experienced sexually, remains trapped in a world of illusion. When Thomas, on her return home, starts kissing the furniture, you realise she has never escaped from the nursery. But there’s a great moment when, after the sale of the orchard, she leans stone-still against a bookcase as if belatedly confronting reality.
However much the production seeks to suggest that Chekhov had intimations of revolutionary upheaval, it is at its best in traditional moments. One of the great scenes is that of Lopakhin’s abortive proposal to Ranevsky’s adopted daughter, Varya. Given Lopakhin’s vindictive triumph in buying the estate, we know any match is unlikely. But the scene is beautifully played by Jade Williams, whose Varya enters with features agitated by hope and who exits drained of all vivacity: she brought back memories of Dorothy Tutin long ago in the same part.
There is good work from Jack Klaff as Ranevsky’s dottily deluded brother, from Lily Wood as a sparky chambermaid and from Robin Hooper as an unusually forthright Firs who rebukes a fellow footman with: “Up yours, butterballs.” But, while the production uses modern dress to imply that we too may be living on the brink of revolution, its virtues derive from its understanding of Chekhov’s steadfast refusal to editorialise.
- At the Arcola theatre, London, until 25 March. Box office: 020-7503 1646.