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The Cherry Orchard / The Winter's Tale

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Simon Russell Beale and director Sam Mendes last collaborated on Chekhov and Shakespeare when they did unforgettable productions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, as part of Mendes’ farewell to the Donmar Warehouse in 2002.

This larger Bridge Project enterprise - involving the Old Vic, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (where those earlier plays transferred following the Donmar) and Mendes’ Neal Street Productions – is far less satisfactory. The mix of British and American actors – plus Sinead Cusack from Ireland – leads to muddle and confusion in the accenting of the language.

And the brilliant Russell Beale, an actor who can find sermons in stones and books in the running brooks, 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.

It’s as though he’s finding sweet adjuncts to both characters and never quite finding the centre. In the Shakespeare, 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) and, in the Chekhov, as an obvious Gaev, the billiard-ball potting distracted brother – again, well played by Paul Jesson – of the overbearing Ranevskaya.

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 – is totally adrift as both the insufferable shepherd in Bohemia and the decrepit Firs – he looks more like a well-scrubbed dosser than a crumbling retainer – in the dacha.

Unusually, the interval is taken after Time’s speech in The Winter's Tale – allowing Easton to complete a clumsy transition from rustic to prophet – and we are delighted to get to know the lumpy Perdita and Florizel of Morven Christie (can she be princess of flowers?) and Michael Braun.

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.

- Michael Coveney


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