The cherry orchard (at least in miniature) remains on view pretty much throughout in the scenic conception for London’s latest “Cherry Orchard” — and in one way, that’s a good thing, since Chekhov’s aching comedy does not. In another way, the constant visual presence of the doomed orchard (a symbol more than a reality) typifies the literal-mindedness of a Trevor Nunn staging that has all the ingredients for rapture and yet often seems assembled by rote. As mounted in the tiny studio-sized Cottesloe, the production is already a near-impossible ticket, not least because it reunites Vanessa and Corin Redgrave 11 months after the siblings acted on stage for the first time together (playing ex-lovers) on the West End in Noel Coward’s “Song at Twilight.” But the expected resonances from the casting materialize less often than that omnipresent orchard, which — in Maria Bjornson’s misbegotten bleached-wood design (IKEA gone country-house Russian) — denies the audience even the expected coup de theatre in much the same way as the production skimps on the play.
One could argue that Nunn has set himself a near-impossible task, staging Chekhov’s last play little more than a year after his sensational NT revival of Gorky’s “Summerfolk,” an incendiary and bittersweet text from the same year that can be seen both to expand upon and to answer Chekhov’s clear-eyed view of a changing Russia. (Gorky was entirely aware of Chekhov’s play.)
But you need not have been in thrall to that earlier production to feel that all is not right at the arbor. You can tell something’s awry when you begin compiling a mental checklist of performances — loved him, hated her, etc. — instead of immersing yourself in that vital (and, here, absent) sense of collective playing without which any “Cherry Orchard” gets the affective axe.
The wild card is also the production’s raison d’etre: the senior Redgrave, Vanessa, whose famously mercurial tendencies ought to place her Ranevskaya in a realm all its own.
Chekhov’s most potentially flamboyant heroine — newly returned from Paris to her beloved Russian estate, her emotions in often self-contradictory tumult — should be a perfect fit for Vanessa, who has performed many previous dry runs for Ranevskaya (among them, a blazing Arkadina in “The Seagull” in 1985) while only now homing in on the real thing.
How, then, to explain a performance whose swoops of emotion — however fascinating to watch — seem utterly disconnected from the play, as if this great actress were annotating some private script in her head and not David Lan’s smartly brisk new Chekhov translation? Those legendary eyes burn and the voice quivers (alternately laughing, humming and weeping, hers may be the noisiest Ranevskaya in memory), but Chekhov’s supremely magnificent and foolish creation comes only fleetingly into focus.
That moment arrives near the end, tellingly, when the actress is at her quietest, in a wordless departure from the family home that finds Ranevskaya’s aching heart as shrouded as her head. I doubt there’s another theater performer anywhere who can be actressy and yet amazing within seconds, as Vanessa is advancing upon that eternal student, Trofimov (an appealing Ben Miles), her snappish anger giving way to anguished regret.
The eccentricities that defined her recent Globe Theater turn as Prospero in “The Tempest” have only solidified here, starting with an occasional sotto voce delivery that renders her all but incomprehensible in Ranevskaya’s crucially prismatic opening scene. The fallout from her perf most directly afflicts a conspicuously bespectacled Corin, who has the makings of a first-rate Gaev — the pool-obsessed uncle — yet to come to fruition.
His body sagging with grief at the family’s failure to hang on to the orchard, Corin only intermittently transmits the sense of this manchild’s retreat into eccentricity. (Not for nothing does Chekhov start his play in a nursery.) In a play requiring Gaev to inhabit his own unnamed and peculiar world, Corin has left precisely that to Vanessa: filial largess taken to an extreme.
The rest of the cast are as good (or not) as circumstances and suitability allow, though one wonders whether a more exacting production might have deepened Michael Bryant’s somewhat cutesy Firs. (So beloved — and rightly — has the NT’s veteran butterball become that the audience practically purrs its delight at his every appearance.)
Charlotte Emmerson is as hopeless a squeaky-voiced Anya as she was a non-siren of the American South earlier this year in “Baby Doll,” while Suzanne Bertish’s Teutonic conjurer of a Charlotta doesn’t capture the moving Beckettian limbo in which the character operates. Roger Allam’s Lopakhin has a poignant fastidiousness, using a tea service’s sugar cubes to map out one solution toward saving the very estate that he will later buy. But he, too, seems defeated by a perf from Redgrave that is as needy as her character, who seems far happier demanding kisses than offering up anything resembling maternal love or, for that matter, an ensemble player’s commitment.
It’s Ranevskaya’s eleventh-hour attempt to do right by her adopted daughter Varya (Eve Best) that prompts the dramatic high point, with a lovesick Varya shrinking into herself as her beloved Lopakhin jabbers on about the weather. And yet, as played by a shining-faced Best, Varya for once isn’t a cliched scold but a kind-intentioned woman whose attempts at decency more often than not lead to despair. (In Lan’s translation, the character is a self-evident cousin to Sonya in “Uncle Vanya,” which Lan translated and directed, superlatively well, at the Young Vic two years ago.)
Indeed, with her constant appeals to God or to the Lord or even fate, this Varya could have stepped out of something by Hardy, substituting the English novelist’s impersonal landscape above with Chekhov’s piercing one of the soul. That’s the quality otherwise missing from a scattershot “Cherry Orchard” that has to turn to the play’s one forever black-garbed character, Varya, in order to let in the playwright’s exalted light.