National Theatre, Olivier, matinee, 3 hours. Vanessa Redgrave as Mme. Ranevskaya, Corin Redgrave as Gaef. Directed by Trevor Nunn
A wonderful ensemble effort, both touching and funny, as Chekhov is in English-speaking productions at their best. A thrust stage, built out fairly far into the audience, and with some entrances and exits up the center aisle. Vanessa Redgrave is her inimitable self: relates deeply to her surroundings, makes much of ordinary props like vodka bottles, and acts from the depths of her being. The furiously angry scene in Act III with Petya was Redgrave at her best and most authentic; still, it depended for its success on Ben Miles’s Trofimov, a fine, unsentimental, and idealized rendering of the penniless student whose clear-sightedness about the future does not motivate him to do anything much to change the miserable conditions of his life. That scene is conducted at a very brisk pace, more than brisk, with the dialogue coming more or less simultaneously and yet remaining clear and coherent.
By and large, what makes a production of a Chekhov play successful is its deft combination of well differentiated, colorful, even idiosyncratic, characters with well-realized ensemble playing, all of that oriented by a coherent point of view of the play. This production, under the sure hand of Trevor Nunn, the Artistic Director of the National, does that. Corin Redgrave (who I believe is Vanessa’s younger brother) played Gaef to a “T.” No more than his fictional sister Ranevskaya can this Gaef comprehend Lopakhin’s plan to save the estate, and they remain uncomprehending of what is happening to them once Lopakhin has bought it outright and begun to implement his scheme to cut down the orchard and divide the shoreline up into salable lots for summer dachas. Redgrave’s (Corin’s) paean to the bookcase was just right, and his embarrassed retreat into his ongoing game of billiards is a transparent gesture that symbolizes his helplessness and superfluousness. He makes each shot with a “tock” sound effect, a sound we come to associate with his instant immersion in the fantasy as he shuts out the real world once again. His body language is also just right: it speaks of a useless gentleman of leisure, self-indulgent but charmingly so, a well-suited relic of the past that still is passing as he reaches his shot with another “tock.”
The Lopakhin, Roger Allam (whom I don’t remember seeing before), was the very image of the peasant he says still lives in his skin — “cut me open and you will find the peasant” — but simultaneously the ungainly yet imposing figure of the millionaire-in-the-making. Chekhov said he must not be played as a buffoon, and he certainly is not played that way here. He is serious and sincere, and he has a clear-sightedness of his own kind comparable to, though wholly distinct from, Trofimov’s. We can conclude that it is his sense of his low origins, and not his faith in his own talents as a businessman, that finally makes it impossible for him to propose to the long-suffering Varya.
It is easy to say, and it has been said many times, that the three main characters of the play are Ranevskaya, Trofimov, and Lopakhin. I’m inclined to agree, but at the same time would want to call attention to the character pairings that carry this play so far: Lopakhin and Varya; Trofimov and Anya; Dunyasha and Yepikhodov (triangulated by the loathsome Yasha, Ranevskaya’s valet); and Ranevskaya’s natural pairing with her brother — they really are two of a kind — is varied by the pull exerted on her by her former lover, who guilt-trips her constantly with telegrams from his sick-bed (or so he gives it out to be) in Paris. These are the combinations that make up a viable Chekhovian plot, and the brilliant series of scenes in which Chekhov articulates these connections, develops them, undermines them, and in other ways deftly works the changes on them are what finally make the play, and make it work. And all of that within the superstructure that organizes every major Chekhov play: an arrival, a sojourn, and a departure. It is a rhythm as familiar as life itself, and its certainty as a pattern gives its shape to what Chekhov saw as the human comedy. Peace to Stanislavski’s colorful insistence that Chekhov was a writer of tragedies. Comedy was his metier, first and last. It shows clearly as that once again when we find that the last scene in this play is not that of the sad farewell to their house and life that Ranevskaya and Gaef make, at what looks like the end of the play, but the anticlimactic entrance of Firs, the old servant, who has been all forgotten about in the haste of departure and who sits down (on the floor of the now bare and abandoned nursery, in this production) and waits. Or dies. It’s not clear, and it doesn’t matter. That’s the real Chekhov, right there. We smile at that.
Oh, yes, the breaking string. A very complex sound, as created here. I’m hard-pressed to describe it, except to say that it was striking but not identifiable; a rending of something, as if the tearing of the silk scarf had been picked up by a super-sensitive microphone and amplified a hundred times, and then allowed to echo and echo and finally die away. We get it toward the end of Act II, in the silence of a waning summer afternoon, and we get it again as Firs lies silent on the floor. It speaks eloquently, if vaguely, of a world in transition.
Oddly, we don’t get the other sound effect at the end, called for in Chekhov’s script and called for again here in David Lan’s version prepared for this production: “an axe, far away in the orchard, thudding against the tree.” The two sounds are meant to reinforce one another. Here the breaking string has to suffice by itself. It does.