If nothing else, this revival of the first of Chekhov’s “big four” would at least have made a refreshing change from the otherwise ubiquitous Uncle Vanyas this year. But there is more, namely a smart new translation by Anya Reiss and a skilful if spare production by Russell Bolam.
Reiss locates the action in contemporary Britain (or rather, her text reveals, possibly the Isle of Man), which gives her the problem of how to make all the theatrical business sound plausibly contemporary. Yes, the actress Arkadina can be discreetly relieved of her line about having to supply her own costumes, but what about the conflict between her conventional style and the otherworldly strangeness offered by her son Konstantin in a semi-impromptu outdoor performance in Act One (complete with sound effects powered by laptop)? In the event, all it takes is a single sardonic gloss to reveal how little has changed in a century, as Arkadina describes that sort of work sarcastically as “clever and inventive and, and European”. Bof!
Sasha Waddell’s Arkadina is not a raging luvvie, simply no less selfish and preoccupied with her own imagined difficulties than everyone else. Ben Moor’s impoverished teacher Medvedenko witters about the cost of mobile phone contracts, but Moor’s inexhaustible good nature keeps the character from becoming as tedious as his beloved Masha (Emily Dobbs) finds him. Malcolm Tierney is masterly as the mumbling, rambling Sorin, and is beautifully though never aggressively goaded by Matthew Kelly as Doctor Dorn. Anthony Howell’s Trigorin is so burdened by his own literary talent that he seems genuinely not to realise the damage he causes by taking up then deserting the ingenue Nina.
It is the central young non-couple on whom a production stands or falls. Joseph Drake as Konstantin is entirely watchable without ever seeming magnetic, but I suspect this is Drake’s subtlety in pitching his performance for a compact space such as Southwark. Nina is a thankless role: three acts of idealistic gush followed by one of seagull-fixated madness. If Lily James fails to find a coherent centre for her character, she certainly shows commitment in coping with the fragments Chekhov has given her. The influence of Ibsen may be palpable, but Reiss, Bolam and Co. begin to suggest that this may in fact be the most ambitious of Chekhov’s major dramas.