What you get here is a matchless sense of the way Chekhov's characters are both irreducibly their own preoccupied, eccentric selves and classic exempla of a changing social order. Granting the room for stage configurations that point this up, the unlumbered spaciousness also allows for headlong, sprawling collisions between tragedy and farce (particularly in the superb ball scene) and help lay bare the subtler confusions of sadness and a delicate dottiness that seems to have affinities in this often surreally funny version with the world of Lewis Carroll.
Weasel-like, with slimed-down hair and eyebrows an inverted V of disaffectedness, Mark Lockyer's young servant-on-the-make shakes with silent laughter every time Alec McCowen's sublimely old-maidish and ineffectual Gaev opens his plummy mouth. A nice contrast, this, with the behaviour of Peter Copley's doddery ancient retainer Firs, who refused to be freed at emancipation and who fusses over the menopausal Gaev as though he were still a schoolboy. Neither the mindless loyalty of the one, nor the self-servingness of the other, strikes you as laudable and, on the issue of how the passing of the old Russia should be greeted, the production is throughout tantalisingly and rightly even-handed.
When he succeeds in buying the estate, lingering awe for the class that kept his recent forebears slaves battles in David Troughton's thick-set, peasant-like Lopakhin with the thrill of chest-beating self-vindication. One minute he is blubbering apologetically into Ranyevskaya's hem, the next he's jiggling the keys aloft in a stamping drunken dance that reminds you of the same actor's Caliban.
The conflict of feelings is particularly painful here because both McCowen's Gaev and Penelope Wilton's magnificent Ranyevskaya show you that there's a piercing, if intermittent, self-knowledge under their indulgent fecklessness.
Hilarious and heartbreaking as she makes seamless, dazzling shifts from giddy mischief to crumpling anguish to moments of disarmingly abrupt candour, Wilton is surrounded by a uniformly superb cast - from John Dougall's pint-sized walking disaster area of an Epihodov (who even when he's given charge of the estate is forced to say, "You can rely on me," in a strangled falsetto, having just choked on something), to Sean Murray's movingly faded but ardent Trofimov, the eternal student who here strikes attitudes that pre-figure the iconography of revolutionary posters as he envisages a better future. A deeply satisfying evening: would it be heresy to suggest that, on the evidence of this and his 1990 Three Sisters, Noble, the RSC's chief, is a more searching director of Chekhov than he is of Shakespeare?
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