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 a significant event. It mixes British and American actors with Simon Russell Beale and the star of the show, an Irish actor of proper vintage, Sinéad Cusack.
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 tries to bind them in a governing style, but it doesn't work. The Shakespeare's too boring, the Chekhov too bland.
Both of these plays are about the eternal verities of love, loss and regret, and in a time of upheaval and trivial public discourse, they make the everyday nonsense of our lives seem pathetic. The Cherry Orchard is probably the greatest play (alongside The Crucible) of the 20th century, and Russell Beale plays the avenging serf who buys the family estate to create holiday homes.
He's a great actor, but he's not coarse-grained enough for this role. He sports 20th-century lapels and pockets on his grey suit but he doesn't have the killer 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.
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. Cusack, too, as Ranevskaya and Paulina, is superb. But I'm afraid the vaunted Canadian Richard Easton did not appeal to me as a badly wigged old shepherd and a badly wigged old Russian retainer.
The Old Vic has been restored to its old self, after the in-the-round configurations for the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy. But these are not the great productions we might have hoped for from the Sam Mendes stable; they're perfectly good, but there is a far higher standard operating at the RSC and the Globe at the moment – and that, I'm afraid, is not to say all that much.
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