Can you pine in a birch forest? Tamsin Greig can: elegantly and elegaically imbuing the simplest conversational dialogue with resonant meaning to illustrate the life of a woman who has become a doctor but yearns for unspoken fulfillments. One one level, this is the audition piece which will in the future confirm her as an exemplary Ranevskaya or Arkadina but, in the meantime, you could wish someone would shake her by the shoulders and impel her to action.

Her character, Varia (perilously close to Veruka from The Art of Coarse Acting’s wicked spoof The Cherry Sisters) arrives at the country house of siblings Tania and Natasha, and all three excitedly anticipate the arrival of longstanding friend Kolia – a stereotypical external antagonist and Moscow lawyer who is not a bit like Lopahkin in The Cherry Orchard.  Meanwhile Tania’s wastrel “intellectual” husband Sergei has made investments on the advice of a man he met in a brothel whilst boffing a 15-year old Armenian girl, and their ancestral home is about to be repossessed and bought for a song by Scots-accented parvenu Dolzikhov – who wants it for his strident and pugnacious daughter named, oh how we laughed at the irony, Kleopatra.

Kleopatra’s love interest is a long drink of water called Misail: he’s the classic Chekhovian character searching for authenticity – although born middle class he wants to work with his hands under the tutelage of a house-painter named, for reasons known only to Boyd and his therapist, Radish.

Once you accept the premise that this is a comedy Chekhov might have written had he lived longer and learned to cut-and-paste, there’s a bounty in the staging and the performances.

The set is poetically beautiful – a full-scale summer house detailed down to the real grass and rotting shingles by Lizzie Clachan, and as much a non-speaking character in the play as is the decaying home in The Last of the Haussmans. In the second act, when it’s transformed into a party venue for Kleopatra and Misail’s hapless betrothal, the sense of watching the drinking and dancing as an outsider through its lighted windows is brilliantly symbolised.

When nothing happens for the first hour, you are reliant on excellent characterization and both Natasha Little, as the lovely but wilting Tania, and Iain Glen, as the much-fancied lawyer, give great value. Glen has an undertaker’s demeanour which provides the stiffness to resist both the doctor and the youthful Natasha, who might marry him to save the family fortune. The moment in which he hides from her and she runs away in shame highlights a touching performance by Eve Ponsonby.

In a welcome stage outing, John Sessions enjoys himself as the oleaginous and excitable self-made man Dolzhikov, but it’s Alan Cox as the spineless Sergei who best portrays the most satisfying, if the least endearing, character. Weakened by a lack of direction or moral focus, smug in his entitlement, by turns pompous and spiteful, he represents the most typical of Chekhov’s male characters, fusing the self-defeat of Treplyov in The Seagull with the impractical idealism of Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard. He is precisely the man in every Chekov play you wish someone would tell to “man up” and tackle his problems, or punch him in the guts.

Fortunately, in Boyd’s version, and in his best-written scene, which brings the first act to a satisfying climax, someone does both.

Date reviewed: Thursday 7th March 2013
Image © Manuel Harlan

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.