The demands of a double bill – both plays are performed on Saturdays – have implications on the set designs. The Cherry Orchard is staged with little more than rehearsal furniture and, notwithstanding Tom Stoppard’s lively translation and some atmospheric lighting, at times the Old Vic stage seems on the empty side.
There is no real ‘lead’ character in the play, which makes it well-suited to a strong ensemble. Rebecca Hall is excellent as the much put-upon Varya, the sensible one of Ranevskaya’s three daughters. Driven to distraction by her family’s fecklessness, Hall’s Varya avoids taking refuge in querulous caricature, and it is truly agonising when Lopakhin fails to propose to her. Richard Easton gives a moving, comic performance as the faithful Firs, left alone to die in the locked house after devoting his whole life to the family.
Mendes makes much of the dislocation between the generations in the play, and the happy ending, such as it is, belongs to the youngest daughter, Anya (Morven Christie), and Trofimov, the eternal student (Ethan Hawke), who are united by their mutual desire to be up and doing. For them the end of the estate seems to promise opportunity and freedom from the fate of endlessly repeating the same old mistakes.
Nostalgia and the passage of time are the twin foci of this first Bridge season: as the audience gathers for both productions, the back wall of the stage is adorned with this quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘O, call back yesterday, bid time return.’ Taken together or separately, these two plays are both excellent blends of some of the finest theatrical talent around.
Next season the company turns its attention to As You Like It and Three Sisters. No need to look for a day job just yet then, Ethan – although the bar has been set pretty high...what if it doesn’t work next time around? Seems unlikely.
The Bridge Project productions are playing in repertory at the Old Vic until 15th August.