Here it comes again, that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar – Anton Chekhov's paean to thwarted ambition, failed hopes and love's labours lost. The twist this time around is that Chekhov’s Russian masterpiece is being staged by the ‘Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’ company who have only once ventured outside the 'canon' in six seasons, and then only as far as Middleton and Rowley.
The company’s departure from its core work is a triumph for director Andrew Hilton and his ensemble. True, I have seen more finely nuanced characterisations. And the production does not reach the pitch of tragedy realised in either of the two recent West End productions say, but given the sheer disparity in resources between those stagings and this, that’s scarcely a fair criticism to level.
What I hadn't expected given the lengthy running time (three hours plus with two breaks) and the familiarity with the play is just how fresh it feels. The 'new' adaptation by Nicholas Wright was first seen at the National two years ago and very crisp it is, too. In Hilton's hands, thankfully, the play canters in at a near half-hour earlier than Katie Mitchell's NT production did, thanks in part to his eschewal of her favoured freeze-frames and slow-mo's.
Although Hilton abandons the traditional, in-the-round staging which has served his Shakespearean productions so well, thankfully the production loses none of the intimacy afforded by this wonderful space. Whether it will fare so well if it transfers to the Barbican (as two Tobacco productions did last autumn) is open to question.
Here in Bristol, however, it triumphs. Some critics have spoken of a lack of clarity and vocal indistinctness. I have to say I didn't find this. True, Lucy Black, as Masha, fails to erase my memories of Kristen Scott-Thomas, whose eyes alone spoke volumes about her character's pain, loneliness and desperation (in Michael Blakemore’s 2003 West End production).
But again, the comparison is perhaps invidious. I was gripped throughout here. Daisy Douglas as Olga, the eldest sister, posts a fine performance. I also particularly enjoyed Roland Oliver as Chebutykin, the army doctor, and Stuart Crossman as Andrey, the sisters' brother. Esther Ruth Elliott as Natasha, Andrey's vulgar, arriviste wife needs to dig a little deeper but will surely do so.
Vicki Cowan-Ostersen’s set feels a little cluttered and takes a while to re-arrange, but the cast negotiate it, like the play, with a good deal of finesse.