Note: The following review dates from September 1999 and the production's original run at the NT's Cottesloe Theatre.
Vanessa Redgrave's presence in this new production of The Cherry Orchard will prove sufficient reason to drive scores of theatre-goers to the National. While Ms Redgrave acquits herself satisfactorily, however, it is the quality of a large ensemble under Trevor Nunn's splendid direction that builds this triumph.
Anton Chekhov's final and great play might seem to cast Madame Ranevskaya (Redgrave) and her brother Leonid (nuanced Corin Redgrave) as central figures in an unfolding tragedy, but Nunn's clear-eyed vision, working with David Lan's fresh-sounding translation, allows laughter when it bubbles up without subduing the voices of anguish in Chekhov's mood-tapestry.
There's the quiet despair of religiously devout Varya (a terrific Eve Best), whose love for the all-conquering businessman Lopakhin (Roger Allam, equally impressive) cannot be returned since Lopakhin hopelessly adores Ranevskaya. Meanwhile Ranevskaya's daughter Anya (Charlotte Emmerson) pines for physical affection from eternal student Trofimov (Ben Miles in a persuasive performance).
Add servant Dunyasha's (Maxine Peake's) infatuation with the vain valet Yasha (James Thornton), and the concomitant exasperation of Yepikhodov (a game Richard Henders) with Dunyasha's indifference, and the human comedy of Chekhov's brilliant gaze is unfurled. Two calibre supporting performances also deserve a mention: William Gaunt as the penurious Simeonov-Pischik, and Michael Bryant as the venerable Firs.
Designer Maria Bjornson sets a huge rectangular picture frame above the action, and at the end of Act One, it reveals, in a pretty tableau, the early summer mood of the fated orchard. On the stage below, Nunn creates some marvellous moments, including Leonid's ultimately empty promise to Varya and Anya to save the estate. The trio link hands around Leonid's beloved old bookcase, as if to consecrate upon an altar a continuity that is in fact doomed to expire.
Another signal vignette occurs when Lopakhin, the son and descendant of serfs, declares his passion for Ranevskaya. She merely rocks in her chair, listening to a musical box and not his amorous proclamations. Nunn has her open the box at the end, when Lopakhin has taken possession of the ancestral home.
Paul B Cohen