The roles we choose for ourselves in our own lives and the performances we give in them is the timeless theme of Chekhov’s masterpiece, and it has never resounded so sharply and tragically as in the Arcola’s stunning new production. Played out on Dora Schweitzer’s simple AstroTurf set with only a scattering of props, this is a production carried by nothing more than stagecraft, flawless performances and the brilliance of the text, which is clearer than ever in a new translation by Charlotte Pyke, John Kerr and director Joseph Blatchley.
Blatchley’s directs the action with a perfect ear for the awkward pauses which follow the characters’ faux pas and underscore their silent yearnings and frustrations. The early scenes of Konstantin’s disastrous virgin play are filled with well-timed laughs and give ample space for the ensemble cast to impress, and this comedy is never allowed to truly vanish, even in its darkest moments. The balance of comic and tragic is masterfully observed, which only adds to the pathos of Konstantin and Nina’s self-inflicted decline.
It is the intensely flawed nature of Konstantin which Al Weaver manages so perfectly: his irritating petulance and increasingly warped obsession with his role in the eyes of the world and, crucially, his mother. Konstantin is an infamously infuriating character, yet Weaver never allows us to fall out with him completely. Even in the depths of his navel-gazing and the height of his theatrics there is an inner strength to this portrayal which flirts with the heroic. This is ably matched by newcomer Yolanda Kettle’s performance as Nina, who here feels too intelligent to be dismissed as a naïve victim, but whose vulnerability has rarely been more pronounced. The moment in which Konstantin refers to Trigorin’s actions as ‘grooming Nina’ may jar ever so slightly with the period, but is nevertheless a chilling stroke.
Mention should also be made of Geraldine James who comes close to stealing the show as Arkadina, making the characters every emotional flourish into a sickly, ham performance intended to trample over the life of her family and friends. Matt Wilkinson makes for a rather faceless Trigorin, but as he himself reflects ‘strength of character’, or rather the lack of it, is his most notable feature. These may be the highlights, but in truth there is no weak link among the cast.
As eloquent on the brilliant stupidity of youth and innocence as it is upon the awful half-sense of experienced age, this is a tremendous and nuanced production.