Theatre: It's good enough to take to the beach

Summerfolk Olivier, London
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The Independent Culture
In a neat piece of scheduling, the National Theatre presents its autumn audience - many of whom will have recently returned from summer holidays - with a play about summer holidays. Trevor Nunn's rich and varied new production of Gorky's Summerfolk could be the sort of chunky novel you might well have packed to take on a fortnight's break.

The Bassovs, Suslovs and Dudakovs are renting neighbouring houses in the country. These particular Russians are representative of a new breed. After the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s, a fresh generation had gone to university, taken up professional careers and earned good money. Now they could buy leisure time. Now they could go away for the summer to sit around debating politics, bickering with their spouses and flirting with their neighbours. In Summerfolk Gorky pinned down a new phenomenon of his day: the rise of the chattering class.

Christopher Oram's idyllic designs might be preparing us for a Chekhov: birch trees and parasols, samovars and chinese lanterns. As you'd expect, couples wander on with one of them declaring love, someone botches a suicide attempt and nightwatchmen patrol the estate. But other ominous themes run through the banter and self-pity. The characters seem to know - as Gorky did - that Russia was on the verge of revolution.

Across the three-and-a-half hours, confessions, pleas and recriminations give way to grander, conflicting points of view: evolution or revolution, pessimism or idealism and moralism or pragmatism. These outbursts spring quickly and fiercely out of the trivial holiday atmosphere. What raises all this talk to a compelling dramatic level is the way that we can register what a dozen people are thinking when only one of them is speaking.

Nunn likes to organise scenes so that at any moment a character will have other characters sitting around providing an audience. Often the action is only a feed for the reaction which is the punchline. You see it when Derbhle Crotty's Kaleria, a comically intense poetess, performs a musical poem by the piano, and our main interest is in following Victoria Hamilton's skittish, sharply-etched Yulia, as she droops a hand over the back of the chair and waits for her lover to take hold of it. After the heated family row at a big celebratory dinner, the stage empties and we laugh when we discover the garrulous Mrs Dudakov (an excellent Beverley Klein) at the far end of the table, unperturbed and tucking into the sausage.

This rigorous use of multiple perspective gives an intricate texture to their lives. When the local official (Jasper Britton) bangs on about what visiting the sea means to him, the lawyer packs away chess pieces, the engineer's wife digs into the chocolates and the maid flattens out the table cloth. No one's listening. An impressionistic director, Nunn sketches in off-stage activity, uses the auditorium for sauntering entrances, and lays on a soundtrack of birds, insects and trains. He fills the Olivier as if it were a studio space.

Nick Dear's funny and sympathetic new version of Summerfolk allows the characters to give us lively hints of their modern-day equivalents. Last week's production of Gorky's The Lower Depths in Edinburgh was an in-yer-face version for the 1990s. This Summerfolk uses some of the language of the 1990s to present the 1900s. We might have expected to pick up an allusion to Shakespeare. We did not expect to hear a quote from T S Eliot, or a reference to the joke about the actress and the bishop.

Summerfolk has lots of good female roles. Patricia Hodge is intriguingly cast as the stern doctor, falling for a younger man. And Jennifer Ehle's quavery, neuralgic Varvara, who compares her situation to a fly battering itself to death against a windowpane, carries a strong whiff of Meryl Streep in her weepy vein. Her central role poses one of the few dramatic problems as her priggishness inhibits our sympathies.

Oliver Cotton's embittered Suslov and Raymond Coulthard's frivolous Vlass seize the opportunity to extend what we've seen them do in other productions this year at the National. Roger Allam and Michael Bryant are consistently good as the blustery lawyer, who doesn't understand his wife, and the perky self-made man, who allows the young the luxury of thinking they can be heroes. Simon Russell Beale fills his (comparatively) small role, of the vexed and crumpled doctor, with four children and a mean, vulgar wife, to bursting point. With an ensemble cast of this quality there's an occasional sense of "oh, is that all you're here for?" Anyone swept away by Henry Goodman's Shylock will be disappointed to see him, as the vain writer, Shalimov, replete with button-hole, watch- chain and trim beard, doing little more than treading water.

With Summerfolk, Nunn's ensemble at the National presents the final production in its year-long season. With each production the company has changed shape and realigned itself - like a kaleidoscope - without losing any of its appeal. It's been fascinating to return and find new depths and talents. With Summerfolk, the six-pack reaches a glowing conclusion. For a year, London has had a local rep company par excellence.

'Summerfolk': Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000) in rep to 11 November

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