Martin Crimp has created a more compact version of Chekhov’s first major play, giving the Russian names an English consistency, simplifying the narrative effects and cutting the asides and soliloquies. But apart from some discreet updating - Munch’s screaming man gets a mention, for example - his chief novelty is to turn Konstantin’s lakeside theatre back to front so that Juliet Stevenson’s Arkadina and her chattering guests are first revealed when the curtains are drawn back on Nina’s entrance.
The major changes lie in Katie Mitchell’s restless production, Dorn’s angel of death overflying more often than the play actually requires and with the force of an Aeroflot jet. Mitchell last used this effect two years ago for her staging of Iphigenia at Aulis, against a very similar background of crumbling plaster, cream paint and glazed partitions, like a derelict thirties seaside hotel.
Far more disturbing is the sheer busyness of the Sorin household, a team of servants forever dashing past on some errand, while the principals, isolated in huge, sparsely-furnished rooms, struggle to come to terms with their emotions. For sheer irritation this takes some beating, breaking up Chekhov’s intimate encounters and preventing our coming close to or even caring about his characters or their dilemmas.
In these distancing circumstances, only the lofty figure of Angus Wright as medical man Dorn, a nifty tango dancer, comes fully into focus, and this must be the first time I found myself trying to spot the pivotal Trigorin (Mark Bazeley) from among the crowd.
The best scenes show what this cast might have achieved given more intimate circumstances - Ben Whishaw’s distraught, juvenile Konstantin quarrelling with his mother or begging Hattie Morahan’s Nina to stay, while Nina’s first romantic exchange with Trigorin - an inscribed book replacing the engraved medallion - is beautifully achieved.