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The Bridge Project: The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard at The Old Vic

Fiona Doyle

The Anglo-American venture known as The Bridge Project is the brainchild of Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey.

Retaining the same cast throughout, this ambitious artistic endeavour will travel the world over the next three years, encompassing a total of six classical plays in the process.

Each season, in true repertory style, the actors will rotate between two challenging classical plays.

For the Project's inaugural season, Mendes has chosen two dramas sharing similar themes of regret and the passing of time – The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare's story of a king's destructive, jealous impulses and The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's complex tragi-comedy about the decline of an aristocratic landowner in the midst of Russian economic and political change.

In The Winter's Tale, Mendes makes full use of his Anglo-American cast.

Sicilia becomes England while Bohemia is essentially America and the mixed array of transatlantic accents therefore, never presents a problem.

In fact, the transportation to the American prairies injects Shakespeare's classic with a burst of lewd and hilarious energy which marks Mendes' bold directorial disposition.

At one point, the pastoral interlude at the beginning of the second act includes both male and female dancers taking to the floor with balloons masquerading as private parts! Ethan Hawke is simply phenomenal in his role as the thieving rogue Autolycus and holds the audience in the palm of his hand for the duration of his time on stage.

His American counterpart Richard Easton also has a magical rapport with the spectator, relishing his roles as the Old Shepherd and Time.

Simon Russell Beale makes an interesting Leontes in that he manages to bring a certain amount of humour to the role which in turn, allows the audience to empathise with a character who is normally difficult to empathise with.

Paul Arditti's combination of live and recorded sound design compliments the moments of surreality that Mendes draws out from the text and one of the most enthralling moments has to be the very serious realisation of the famous stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' Well, either that or the balloon-dancing bit.

Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard poses a different sort of challenge.

Capturing the transition between the decline of an old world as a new one takes its place, it is a deeply complex and psychological play with an emphasis on non-action rather than the reverse.

One of the greatest problems in understanding this drama is to know whether or not it is a comedy when it has been received by so many as the complete opposite.

In this new adaptation by Tom Stoppard, Mendes manages to find the Balance between both states.

Paul Arditti's sound design is familiar as he employs the same sustained notes used in The Winter's Tale to heighten and intensify particular moments while once again, Mendes protracts a level of surreality from the text.

Indeed, one of the most striking moments occurs at the beginning of Act Two when a group of masked ballroom dancers lit in an intense red light move in slow motion towards a trapped Ranevskaya played by Sinead Cusack.

In contrast, Simon Russell Beale imbues the character of Lopakhin with a humour that allows the audience some much-needed relief at appropriate moments.

Coupled with Paul Jesson's Gayev, both actors operate as a comedy-duo supported by some stalwart comedic performances from Tobias Segal as the acrobatic and love-struck Yepikhodov.

Richard Easton matches his brilliantly skilled performance in The Winter's Tale in the role of the ailing servant Firs while Ethan Hawke finds new vigour and boldness in Trofimov, a character sometimes portrayed as an inferior young man who fears his emergence into the real world.

This unprecedented, three-year, transatlantic partnership is worth the price of a ticket – and if you miss out this time, there's always next season, and the one after that…

The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale are at The Old Vic until 15 August

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