In George Orwell’s essay on Dickens, he points out the implausibility of the likes of Mr Pickwick making money in the City, explaining that someone of Pickwick’s lack of worldliness would have been unlikely to have been successful.
Orwell’s words came to mind while watching Philip Franks’ production of Chekhov’s last work , specifically at Lopakhin. What the text suggests is a man, born a peasant who, by middle age, has accumulated great wealth, suggesting that here’s a man with the eye for the main chance who’s utterly ruthless in business. But the Lopakhin played by Michael Siberry is more like a bumbling oaf than an astute businessman; not only would it be unlikely that he would have made money but it’s hard to see what about him attracts Varya, nor is there any sense of his infatuation with Ranyevskaya herself.
It’s a discordant note from the start and matters aren’t helped by Diana Rigg’s Madame Ranyevskaya. As conceived by Chekhov, this is a youngish woman (played by the Chekhov’s wife, the 36-year-old Olga Knipper at the premiere), mourning the death of her young son and seeking solace in her Parisian lifestyle and her lover. Rigg is a fine actor but with the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine this character living it up in bohemian Paris; when she talks about her life there, it sounds more like an old woman raging against the dying of the light.
What’s frustrating about the deficiencies of this central pairing is that’s so much to admire about the production. There’s a one standout performance from Jemma Redgrav as Ranyevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya: equally frustrated by her mother’s spendthrift ways and her passion for Lopakhin. Redgrave plays a woman keeping her emotions in check superbly, until the last scene after Lopakhin once again fails to propose.
Maureen Lipman’s cheerful German governess (even if her German accent is a bit awry) and Natalie Cassidy’s lovelorn Dunyasha also offer fine performances as does William Gaunt’s Gayev (although he’s also too old for his part). Franks hasn’t ignored the comedic element and makes sure that there are plenty of laughs. He’s also nicely underplayed both the melodrama, so it doesn’t get too gloomy, and the political content. We do get the sense that that the old order is about to be overthrown, notably in Oliver Kieran-Jones' icily unpleasant Yasha. But the good performances can’t mask the gaping hole at the heart of this drama, one that Franks seems content to gloss over.