Chekhov’s great tragi-comedy of love-in-conflict conjures images of languorous lakeside afternoons in 19th-century Russia, linen-draped bourgeois angst to the fore. Some of that flavour survives in Sean Holmes’s striking reimagining of the passions that consume a friendship group seemingly doomed to heartbreak and suffering, but we’re now in a realm of white plastic garden chairs, electric guitars and a varety of hipsterware.
Chekhov is more there in spirit than in the dialogue, Simon Stephens peppering his adaptation with modern-day idioms. It’s the first time I’ve heard a Chekhov character utter the F word. There’s a sense in which we’re watching a slightly dysfunctional intergenerational gathering that’s got lost on its way to Glastonbury.
We’re actually in the grounds of a country house, the prevailing air one of both disillusionment and yearning. Everyone seems to be either in love with the wrong person, or crippled by self-loathing, in some cases both. Dominating proceedings is ageing, thwarted actress Irina, the chief object of whose bitterness is her son Konstantin — a twentysomething who believes the answer to his own search for life’s meaning lies in writing plays.
To some extent this is a play about theatre itself – about the illusions we both project and buy into. Hence the key scene towards the end of Act 2 when awe-struck aspiring actress Nina tries to convince Boris of his importance as a writer — “I’d give up everything to live your life” — and he responds with a long despairing speech in which he says, “I know how worthless I really am”.
As Irina, Lesley Sharp (star of ITV’s Scott & Bailey) is a powerful presence, for ever going off on one and then retreating into regret and neediness. She is in a very bad place indeed — her treatment of her son is truly shocking — and the scene in which the pair of them end up hiding under a table in a bleak, very unChekhovian living space could almost have come out of Samuel Beckett.
So while the setting is outwardly contemporary, there are still references to people travelling by horse, and nobody whips out a mobile phone or an iPad. The production succeeds in detaching everybody from time and space so that they seem to float in an imaginary world where nothing is quite where they want it to be — certainly not their emotions.
Visually, the production really works, with designer Hyemi Shin and lighting director Anna Watson creating stunning scene changes which we witness as shadow play conducted behind a screen. And if this was an ensemble piece in which not everybody seemed quite in tune with one another — the degree of naturalism varied somewhat — there were some fine performances.
Special mention to Brian Vernel, a young Scottish actor whose edgy, vulnerable Konstantin might have stepped out of Trainspotting; to Michele Austin, exuding a kind of lost grandeur as Pauline; and to Adelayo Adedayo, whose Nina very effectively combined frailty and defiance.
Classics are there to be reinvented, and the risks that this reinvention takes involve no loss of Chekhovian essence while adding a lot in terms of characters that a 2017 audience might relate to.