Aged 82, Sir Ian McKellen undertook a demanding, intriguing Hamlet in the first show of a two-play season at Windsor: you can’t blame him for taking a back seat in the second. In the bit part of the ageing servant Firs, he still nearly steals this sumptuous rendering of Chekhov’s last work from Francesca Annis’s regal but feckless landowner Ranyevskaya, and Martin Shaw’s charismatic arriviste Lopakhin.
Sean Mathias’s production includes several cast members from that radical Hamlet, which broke down all sorts of boundaries. But there’s no age-blind casting this time, and only one gender-switched role: Jenny Seagrove as Ranyevskaya’s prattling brother Gaev. Martin Sherman’s translation doesn’t contain anything to frighten the horses. This is a bittersweet, pleasing, relatively traditional reading of the play, where the stripped back set helps to make the characters and relationships pop.
The wealthy Lopakhin, descended from peasants and serfs, aims to help Ranyevskaya even as his kind supplants hers in the rapidly changing Russia of 1903. Shaw – usually so reserved – invests him with a cocky swagger and tremendous zest. His accent thickens, the more drunk he gets. Annis, meanwhile, is like a stately galleon under full sail, holed below the waterline but still firing on all would-be rescuers. She captures the character’s desperate romanticism and sadness but borders on the maudlin in later scenes.
In decades of London theatregoing, I’ve seen far fewer stagings of this play than of Chekhov’s Seagull, Uncle Vanya or Three Sisters, probably because it’s bereft of flashpoints, its tragedy and comedy more muted. Character is everything. Among the younger generation, Alis Wyn Davies and Missy Malek waft charmingly through the (in)action as the bedazzled maid Dunyasha and Ranyevskaya’s daughter Anya. Kezrena James struggles in the more challenging part of Anya’s adopted sister, Varya, and Ben Allen is bland as the eternal student Trofimov.
Perhaps because Chekhov was nearing the end of his life, this wistful play belongs to the older generation. Robert Daws is excellent as the absurd, eternally impoverished but eternally optimistic aristocrat Pishchik and Asif Khan manages to make the clumsy Yepikhodov more than a mere caricature.
Then there’s McKellen, who is not only our finest living classical actor but a great, low-key physical comedian. Having played down his age in Hamlet, he plays it up here. His Firs is a muttering, shuffling, nagging, digressive scene-stealer, with a shaved head and a bushy rectangle of grizzled beard. Told he’s grown very old he ripostes: “That’s because I’ve lived a long time”. McKellen uses his native Burnley accent. He plays the final scene for all that it - and he - is worth.