Trevor Nunn’s excellent production perfectly captures the single salient fact of Chekhov’s play, that every person on stage feels sincere love for every other person but is so wrapped up in his or her own drama that small cruelties and large betrayals are ubiquitous. The play observes this with rue and warmth and a surprising amount of humour, ultimately forgiving everyone for sins more unconscious than malicious.
At the centre, Richard Goulding’s Konstantin is a boy more than half in love with his own unhappiness, most at a loss when years of it have made it almost comfortable, and rushing into the anguish of the final encounter with Nina as if to his salvation, the actor also having the courage to make Kostya occasionally unattractive in his self-absorption. Romola Garai defines Nina from the start as living on raw nerves to the point of near-hysteria, so that the journey from girlish enthusiasm in a protected environment to madness after exposure to the harsh outside world is not a long one.
Frances Barber never tries to hide the fact that Arkadina is vain and shallow but keeps her from being ridiculous by showing the edge of panic in the aging diva’s eyes. Her needs for the spotlight, the younger lover and the untouched bank account are all part of the same insecurity that blinds her to her son’s unhappiness. Gerald Kyd allows Trigorin less of an excuse, his passive acceptance of the easy life of a piece with his casual destruction of Nina.
William Gaunt and Ian McKellen alternate in the smaller role of Sorin, Gaunt contributing significantly to the play’s elegiac air with a warm, unforcedly humorous and self-effacingly generous performance. Jonathan Hyde’s coldly complacent Dorn and Monica Dolan’s irony-tinged Masha are also strong.