Theatre: Millennial anxieties

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The Independent Culture
GORKY'S SUMMERFOLK is the answer to a programmer's prayer. Well, any programmer who, like Trevor Nunn, happens to have (a) a crack ensemble of 20-odd actors ready to animate a large canvas, and (b) the perceived obligation to put on plays that possess some millennial dimension.

First produced in 1904, Summerfolk fits the bill on both counts, since it allows us to look back, with the irony and compassion of hindsight, to the turn-of-the-century hopes and anxieties of a cross-section of Russia's new industrial middle class as they congregate in their rented holiday dachas.

In Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, premiered earlier the same year, the entrepreneurial Lopakhin floats a vision of such dacha communities as the seedbed of a better life. Gorky shows us the far less lovely reality. This first generation to rise from the working classes isn't galvanised by any great idea for social regeneration. As the title implies, these people treat the world with the casual irresponsibility of tourists.

Played against a lovely cyclorama of receding birch trees, Nunn's production orchestrates the lazy, fractious picnics in the dappled light, the unravelling marriages, the amateur dramatics and ferocious political ding-dongs with a rich human amplitude and alertness to contradiction. If the bone structure and accents of some of the cast make it a bit hard to believe in their proletarian origins, the splendid performances reveal that, in this play (unlike in some of his later ones), Gorky presented even characters with whom he strongly disagreed from their own point of view.

Take the novelist Shalimov, who can't keep pace with change and no longer understands his readership. To be sure, we see him from the perspective of Jennifer Ehle's permanently on-the-verge-of-tears heroine Varya, who once idolised him, and of the impatient visionary Maria Lvovna (Patricia Hodge) who, in Nick Dear's helpfully embellished version of the play, spells out why a society in which there are no political institutions or free press looks to its writers for a moral lead. But we also see the effect of such expectations on Shalimov. Starting off as the character who asks the most urgent, intelligent questions, he narrows to a position of defiant cynicism.

Watching an ensemble company evolve over a number of productions offers many joys. One of these is noticing the growth of talent such as that of Raymond Couthard, who makes a vivid impression as the clowningly malcontent, lovelorn Vlass, Gorky's semi-surrogate. Another is marvelling at the roundedness a top-flight actor can give to a small role - as the child-oppressed Doctor Dudakov, Simon Russell Beale suggests, with just a few deft strokes, a whole world of sagging defeat.

The one grating mistake is the tacked-on ending. After the middle classes have retired, ragged beggars steal in to scavenge the remains of the dinner. A night watchman with a gun arrives and coolly surveys them. A moment's tension and then, of course, he sits down and eats with them. Cue the Revolution. A crude teasing-out of what is implicit in the material. That apart, a deeply rewarding evening.

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