Theatre: A cast of thousands... and no extras

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The Independent Culture
Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard topped most polls as play of the century, and no one could dispute the haunting impartiality with which it intimates the passing of the old Russia. But, to put the question crudely, was it fully up to speed with the rate at which change was accelerating? In the play, Lopakhin - the son of a serf and now a successful merchant - advises the settlers, the aristocratic owners of the estate, that the only way they can hold on to it is to lease the land and build villas for summer visitors. The idea is dismissed as impossibly vulgar. After he has pocketed the property at the inevitable auction, the reeling merchant permits himself a vision of the cherry orchard cut down - the timber turned into communities of dachas where a new life will spring up for future generations.

As Trevor Nunn points out, the irony is that Lopakhin's forecast was already a current reality in the Russia of 1903-4 (when the play was written and produced) and that the merchant's dreamy optimism was being misplaced. At the end of that same year, Maxim Gorky, the friend and dramatist who was earmarked by Chekhov as his successor, premiered Summerfolk, a work which focuses on the first upwardly mobile generation of Russians to have risen, through educational reform, from the working class to the professional bourgeoisie.

Where Lopakhin envisions the dacha colonies as centres of idealism, for the proletarian Gorky, the star graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, they are a symbol of the way this new class - self-centred, politically ineffectual, and endlessly theorising - treats the world with casual irresponsibility. Not that he presents this group as a monolith. One of the splendours of this swirlingly populous play is the diversity of voices and points of view, all of which, says Nunn - whose Olivier revival opens next month - "are done the honour of being taken seriously and understood from the inside".

Gorky may have drifted towards propaganda in his later plays and ended up in the "ghastly position of being celebrated by Stalin as `the Spirit of the Revolution', while not wanting any contact with Stalin at all". But in Summerfolk, says Nunn, his chameleon characterisation is "Shakespearean".

The characters include a novelist who is disoriented by social change and unable to meet the idealistic demands of his fans; a badgering visionary bluestocking who argues that this generation has been sent as pathfinders for their brothers below; and an engineer who points out that people from hungry, fear-oppressed backgrounds want peace and comfort, not commands to serve mankind. Culminating in the break-up of the heroine's marriage and an acrimonious split in the community, the play offers the combination of social sweep and nuanced emotional detail on which Nunn thrives.

The director's association with Summerfolk goes back a long way. Indeed, he was responsible, as programmer and producer, for the first ever British production, directed by David Jones in 1974. Nunn was running the RSC, which had scored a success with Gorky's Enemies, and Summerfolk, with its array of 24 substantial parts, became the crowning achievement of a crack ensemble (including Ian Richardson, Susan Fleetwood, Estelle Kohler and Mike Gwilym).

Nunn's motive for taking a fresh look at the play aren't confined to fact that it's a masterpiece or that, once again, he can draw on a large and experienced company (with members such as Roger Allam, Patricia Hodge, Victoria Hamilton, and Simon Russell Beale). More to the point, Summerfolk provides a supreme solution to what he refers to dryly as "this millennial problem". "It's not `is it good?' any more, it's `is it millennial?' The audience will have the opportunity to look back at Gorky's characters as they look forward across the century that is now nearing its completion. The questions they ask themselves are close to home: `What do we feel about this new century and what do we want to happen in it?'."

Of course, argues Nunn, the play is now suffused with the irony of hindsight. In January 1905, all performances of Summerfolk were suspended. The official reason was that the leading actress was "indisposed". In fact, she was as right as rain and sued the authorities, without success, for permission to continue. The real motive was political. The capital was in turmoil and Gorky was in prison, having been arrested for his part in the aftermath of "Bloody Sunday", the huge demonstration which lead to the killing of 200 people by panicking troops. The grim events of that day were the first blast in a revolution which arches over the century. In Summerfolk you can hear the anticipatory rumblings.

On the other hand, Nunn says, a contemporary audience needs help in appreciating the sheer urgency of the problems as they were experienced by the characters at the time. Writing under the prospective gaze of the censor, Gorky had to resort to hints and allusions that can no longer be picked up. So Nick Dear's new version will fill us in a bit more on issues which might otherwise seem obscure. You might feel, for example, that the bluestocking idealist is wildly excessive in her pestering of the reluctant novelist until it's brought home how, in a world with virtually no political institutions, writers were looked to for moral leadership.

With Summerfolk, the National continues our education in the riches of Russian drama. Gorky arrives in the wake of Bulgakov's Flight and Ostrovsky's The Forest. What next? Nunn attempts to control a satisfied smirk and reveals that in 2000 he will direct a Cottesloe production of The Cherry Orchard, the play of the previous century and the one to which Summerfolk is, he says, "an almost conscious response".