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Review Round-up: A Bridge Too Far for Mendes?

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Sam Mendes' long-awaited transatlantic Bridge Project made its UK premiere at the Old Vic yesterday (9 June 2009, previews from 23 May), with critics getting the opportunity to see both The Winter's Tale and The Cherry Orchard over the course of the day (only months after they gorged themselves on a full-day feast of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy at the same venue last autumn).

The project is a new venture forged between Mendes, the Old Vic and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The productions, which run in rep, premiered in New York from January to March before embarking on an international tour to Singapore, New Zealand, Spain and Germany (See News, 30 May 2008). The stellar international ensemble is led by Simon Russell Beale (Leontes/Lopakhin), Ethan Hawke (Autolycus/Trofimov), Sinead Cusack (Paulina/Madame Ranevskaya) and Rebecca Hall (Hermione/Varya).

Former Donmar supremo Mendes pretty much picked up where he left off with the UK critics, receiving a wealth of plaudits for both productions and a host of star ratings in the three to five bracket. Of the two productions, the majority preferred The Cherry Orchard, though not the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer, who awarded The Winter's Tale five stars, and like most of his contemporaries lauded Simon Russell Beale's “ wonderful performances” in both productions. There was plentiful praise too for Ethan Hawke - the “American stand-out” according to Benedict Nightingale in The Times - as well as the “outstanding support” of Sinead Cusack and Rebecca Hall. There were reservations from some quarters about the “Rubik's cube” logistics of the project dampening its creative merits, but overall more bridges were built than burnt.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “The mix of British and American actors … leads to muddle and confusion in the accenting of the language. And the brilliant Russell Beale … is far too fallible as the jealous Leontes in The Winter's Tale and far too malleable as the brutish serf-turned-property-owner Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard … You feel that he’d be more at home as Autolycus (although this snapper-up of unconsidered trifles is perfectly, indeed brilliantly, well played by Ethan Hawke) … The latter’s done very well by Sinead Cusack, stepping up a gear from her sedate Paulina in The Winter's Tale, and there’s nothing to complain about in the performances of Selina Cadell as the tricksy Carlotta, Josh Hamilton as Yasha and Polixenes, or Tobias Segal as the over-zealous young shepherd and the underwhelming, squeaky-booted Yepikhodov. Rebecca Hall is miscast as Chekhov’s Varya, too nice and homely, too willowy, in the role, just as the slightly ridiculous Richard Easton – who never stops grinning and jollying everyone else along all evening … The bohemian scenes in the Shakespeare are rife with coloured balloons, a not very exciting idea which makes Ethan Hawke sound like Benny Hill. The bear is a bear-like apparition, the thunder storm considerable and the tedious Antigonus of Dakin Matthews deservedly consumed by the looming bruin.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (The Winter’s Tale: four stars, The Cherry Orchard: three stars) - “The main American stand-out is Ethan Hawke, ebullient, sly and malicious as the conman Autolycus and, whether posing as a balladeer, a courtier or a snake-oil salesman, he’s a self-enraptured master of disguise … Braun makes an appealing Florizel for Perdita to love, Morven Christie doesn’t have the radiance the girl herself needs … Cusack is superb - and Russell Beale excellent as the peasant-turned-tycoon Lopakhin. Cusack is also wonderfully strong as Hermione’s protector, Paulina, and Paul Jesson impressive as Ranevskaya’s brother, the overage infant Gaev. But Russell Beale catches Lopakhin’s mix of self-admitted vulgarity, unconscious sensitivity, half-acknowledged love for Ranevskaya herself and, at one memorable moment, bewilderment at the folly of his world and life. I wouldn’t say yesterday was wholly his day. But he dominated it.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (The Winter’s Tale: three stars, The Cherry Orchard: four stars) - “This Sam Mendes double bill that inaugurates the transatlantic Bridge Project is highly impressive: the two productions of these time-haunted plays are strikingly clear and unfussy … Mendes, who directed The Cherry Orchard at the start of his career, clearly understands the play thoroughly … Russell Beale also brings out excellently the character’s volatile insecurity … All this is well done. I was less taken with the festive scenes, which tale the form of a pastoral hoedown suggestive more of Oklahoma than Bohemia. There is good work from Morven Christie as a charming Perdita, and Ethan Hawke as a guitar-strumming, faintly Dylanesque Autolycus. It is, however, a relief when the action returns to Sicilia and the statuesque Hermione’s restoration … Together, these artfully twinned productions prove the whole Mendes project is definitely not a Bridge too far.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (The Winter's Tale: five stars, The Cherry Orchard: four stars) - “It's an enticing prospect, and as is almost always the case, Mendes and co deliver the goods … The shows will be best remembered for Simon Russell Beale's wonderful performances. He seems to be almost physically overcome by sexual jealousy in The Winter's Tale … He's almost as fine in The Cherry Orchard … Yet somehow Russell Beale endows even this vulgar, workaholic businessman with the soul of a poet. There is outstanding support from Sinead Cusack, who captures both the absurdity and the grief of Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, and makes a fierce and moving Paulina in The Winter's Tale. And Rebecca Hall, who gets better with every performance, doubles as a haunting Hermione in the Shakespeare while finding a more everyday sadness in poor Varya. Paul Jesson, Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke also shine in productions that make one long for Mendes' permanent return to the British stage.”

  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail - “Russell Beale weights his words so carefully you sometimes wonder if he’s forgotten them. But he’s tender and touching as the frazzled monarch who looks like he can’t decide if he’s hot a hangover or swine flu. Sadly, the play goes off the boil in the second half as Mendes turns the pastoral idyll of Shakespeare’s Bohemia into vulgar mid-Western hoedown with Ethan Hawke doing a turn as a Dylanesque busker and pickpocket. Hawke has oodles of stage presence and a rich classical voice, but his occasional pop at an Irish accent is phonetic carnage … Much more spellbinding is The Cherry Orchard … Helen Rappaport’s translation of the play has been buffed to a sheen by Tom Stoppard, but it’s the actors’ depth of characterisation that carries the emotionally agonising passage through love, loss and unrequited passion. Sinead Cusack … rescues her character with a wistful Celtic lilt rendering her softer and more sympathetic. Russell Beale … is perfectly impatient and yet in thrall to her whimsy. Meanwhile Hawke is moodily engaging as the eternal student who remains proudly broke and intellectually aloof. And Richard Easton is marvellously agile and resilient as the ancient butler who embodies the sweet but obsolescent spirit of the doomed house.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “The juxtaposition of the two plays allows us to see the actors’ range, and Russell Beale, perhaps lacking a certain animal menace as Lopakhin, proves more completely suited to the Shakespeare. As Leontes, his intelligence illuminates every scene in which he is involved. Rebecca Hall, powerful as Chekhov’s Varya, makes a dignified Hermione, while Ethan Hawke, who plays the roguish troubadour Autolycus as a cross between David Blaine and Tom Waits, brings a Gothic mystery to the 'mangy' student Trofimov, and Sinead Cusack, a leonine Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, delivers a captivating performance as the extravagant matriarch Ranevskaya … Both plays, for instance, contain pastoral interludes, and neither really works. The festive opening of the second half of The Winter’s Tale is weak - an embarrassing foray into erotic balloon modelling. Anthony Ward’s sets, constrained by the demands of repertory, are spare but effective, and Paul Pyant’s lighting is excellent. Mark Bennett’s music, which makes haunting use of an aluminium harp in The Cherry Orchard, is atmospheric though far from euphonious. Sam Mendes’ direction displays imagination, but sometimes lacks rhythm … Without doubt this first chapter of The Bridge Project is a significant theatrical event. But its logistical complications, described by Mendes as 'a bit like a Rubik’s cube', have resulted in a pair of productions that do not fully satisfy.”

- Theo Bosanquet & Laura Garriga


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