Chekhov’s Orchard Is Classy Gray; Albee Seeks Balance: Review

Zoe Wanamaker in "The Cherry Orchard" by Chekhov at the National Theatre in London. Ranyevskaya, a feckless, loving, imprudent woman, dominates the action of the play. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/National Theatre via Bloomberg

There’s an atmospheric decaying wooden set, beautiful lighting, a fine ensemble of actors and a sense of seen-it-before in the new staging of “The Cherry Orchard” at the National Theatre in London.

Chekhov’s 1904 play deals with Ranyevskaya (Zoe Wanamaker), a bankrupt landowner who refuses to believe that her beloved estate and cherry orchard are about to be lost.

It’s also about beginnings: Complicated new possibilities are represented by the wealthy peasant-turned-capitalist Lopakhin, and the idealistic student Trofimov.

You wouldn’t necessarily guess that struggle from Howard Davies’s off-the-peg, period-costume production. It’s clear and finely paced. With its warm side lighting, melancholy music and air of decay, it also offers the standard-issue nostalgic atmosphere that’s often slathered over Chekhov. Sam Mendes did a similar thing a couple of years ago in his staging at the Old Vic.

Sepia tints are lovely. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to see Chekhov in color?

Andrew Upton’s new performing version of the play injects a kind of modernity. There are insults like “Boy, you are pushing it, girlie,” and “You whiffy crap artist!,” and sentences trail off into inarticulate hesitations. Sometimes it creates naturalistic speech rhythms, and sometimes it jars.

With all that, there’s still plenty to savor. Bunny Christie’s handsome sliding set presents the interior and exterior of a stately, run-down wooden mansion. Clumps of grass grow at the edges, and a rusty telegraph pole looms.

Girlish Zoe

Wanamaker is an enjoyably heart-on-sleeve Ranyevskaya, skipping girlishly one moment, in tears the next. She beats Trofimov’s chest with her fists and then, a beat later, hugs him tenderly. Conleth Hill explores the vulnerability as well as the bluster in the self-made Lopakhin. His sudden outbursts suggest the pent-up frustration of a boy railing at injustice.

Mark Bonnar is fiery, if one-note, as naive speechifying Trofimov. The rest of the cast makes a good ensemble.

Still, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that the characters know they’re living in prerevolutionary Russia. How much more dynamic it could be if we felt they were actually in their own present, with everything still to play for. Rating: **.

Frightened Guests

There’s another trip into the past at the Almeida Theatre, where a superb cast stars in Edward Albee’s 1966 play “A Delicate Balance,” finely directed by James Macdonald.

Agnes and Tobias (Penelope Wilton and Tim Pigott-Smith) live an upper-middle-class East Coast life among expensive sofas, sumptuous rugs and book-lined shelves. (Set by Laura Hopkins). Their friends Harry and Edna turn up in distress. “We were scared,” they say, choosing not to reveal any more about their strange existential crisis. They then mention that they’ll be moving in, much to Tobias and Agnes’s discomfort.

It’s a slow, stylized piece. Fear hovers amid the luxury. The cool, hyper-articulate Agnes talks in perfectly modulated sentences with labyrinthine clauses and sub-clauses. Agnes’s sister Claire (Imelda Staunton in wonderful form) is a sharp-tongued drunk who utters brilliantly bitter, comical truths.

The cast couldn’t be better. Wilton conveys tenderness under a glacial, poised facade, and Pigott-Smith is terrific as the bumbling, supposedly genial Tobias.

What is the “delicate balance” that must be found? Is it the playoff between the demands of friendship and self preservation? Between comfortable social conformity and individual expression?

If Albee’s meandering play takes a long time -- too long, at three hours with two intervals -- in serving up such question marks, it also provides pithy insights along the way. That’s still not enough to make it a must-see evening.

Rating: **.

“The Cherry Orchard” is in repertory at the National Theatre as part of the Travelex 12 pound ($19.42) season, and will be broadcast in movie houses for National Theatre Live on June 30. Information: or +44-20-74532-3000.

“A Delicate Balance” is at the Almeida Theatre through July 2. The principal sponsor is Coutts & Co. Information: or +44-20-7359-4404.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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