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

Mendes's stars struggle to find the right tone

Michael Coveney
Wednesday 10 June 2009 00:00

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.

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