First Night: The Cherry Orchard/The Winter's Tale, Old Vic, London

2.00

Mendes's stars struggle to find the right tone

It's a mixed package, but the arrival in London of the latest Sam Mendes project, co-produced with Kevin Spacey's Old Vic and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, is an important, significant event. It mixes British and American actors with Simon Russell Beale and the real star of the show, an Irish actor of proper vintage, Sinead Cusack.

Alongside these two we have the estimable Ethan Hawke - one of the finest Hamlets on cellulloid I've ever seen - as a Bob Dylan-into-Johnny Depp-style Autolycus in the Shakespeare, and the eternal student Trofimov in Chekhov - and the wondrous, willowy Rebecca Hall as the calumniated Hermione (coming to life as a Dior statue) and a stunted Varya.

The tonality of these British and American actors is always interesting but never satisfactory. It creates an audible confusion similar to hearing the same piano sonata on modern and baroque instruments. Mendes and his designer Anthony Ward try to bind them in a governing style, but it doesn't work. The Shakespeare's too boring, the Chekhov too bland.

A constellation of lights descends in the heavily butchered opening of The Winter's Tale - one of the most perfectly structured plays ever written - to isolate a post-pubescent girl playing the infant son Mamillius. It makes no sense except for giving Russell Beale a way of releasing his paternal instinct, one of the ways he tries and makes Leontes more sympathetic than he really is.

One of Russell Beale's best collaborations with Mendes was an RSC Richard III in which he was famously likened to the unlikely offspring of Pere Ubu and Gertrude Stein. That bite has momentarily disappeared from his acting and he's settled for finding the soft edges around the periphery of Leontes and Lophakin.

Back to Sinead. She plays the louche aristocrat Ranevskaya in the new Tom Stoppard version (from a literal, and scandalously under-credited, translation by Helen Rappaport) of The Cherry Orchard and the watchful, conciliatory Paulina in The Winter's Tale, who tells the frozen statue of the abandoned wife, and us: "It is required you do awake your faith."

Both these plays are about the eternal verities of love, loss and regret, and in a time of political upheaval and trivial public discourse, they make the everyday nonsense of our lives seem pathetic. The Cherry Orchard is probably the greatest play (alongside Arthur Miller's The Crucible) of the 20th century, and Russell Beale plays the avenging serf who buys the family estate to create holiday homes for nouveau riche weekenders.

He's a great actor, but he's not nasty enough for this role. He sports 20th-century lapels on his grey suit but he doesn't have the killer vindictive class enemy quality to push his case home. As Leontes in The Winter's Tale, however, he finds so many notes of subtle regret even when he's behaving badly that you end up thinking he gets a raw deal when the tide turns. "I have drunk and seen the spider," he says, and you don't really believe him.

In the Chekhov, an estate is sold. In the Shakespeare, a life, and a love, is renewed. Mendes and his team give both causes an honourable shout, recalling his previous Shakespeare and Chekhov mix on Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya with Russell Beale at the Donmar; but this does not work out so well, and there's a feel of filling an artistic agenda, not flying free.

That said, we should salute actors like Paul Jesson and Dakin Matthews who make essentially boring roles in both plays repositories of some kind of admirable activity. The death of Firs in The Cherry Orchard is less of a tragedy than a great relief, while the conclusion of The Winter's Tale hits home powerfully, as lives are renewed and all that silly stuff with balloons and bad jokes in Bohemia is wiped out with forgiveness and some kind of redemption.

These are not the great productions we might have hoped for from the Sam Mendes stable after his recent Hollywood years; they're perfectly good, with fine performances especially from Hall, Russell Beale and Cusack, but there is a far higher standard operating at the RSC and the Southwark Globe at the moment.

And that is not to say all that much. We may be entering a crisis in the lists of classical theatre production in this country, and after this over-promoted and essentially mediocre double, a sense of exhaustion at the Donmar, and the Jude Law Hamlet, I'm not sure there are all that many signs of an oncoming light at the end of the tunnel.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried