By: Anton Chekov, in a version by Andrew Upton
Directed by: Howard Davies
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Tuesday 19th July 2011
This was the most wonderful production. Even before the start I liked the look of the set, or what I could see of it in the gloom. Instead of the usual palatial if somewhat dowdy nursery, this was a very rustic house with dilapidated plank walls and drab old furniture. It gave me the sense of a house in the back of beyond as well as creating a stronger contrast with the luxury and style of Paris, and emphasised the rose-tinted aspects of Madam Ranyevskaya’s nostalgia. The telegraph/telephone pole to the right of the stage (there were actually two of them, but the other one was hidden at this point) was a reminder of the technological changes that were underway around that time, and this opening set had me engaged before a line of dialogue had been spoken.
I spotted the body on the seat as well, though I’d forgotten it was Lopakhin who would be under the blanket. I realised this was a structural motif, beginning and ending the play with someone asleep; although Firs could well be dead – in this production he’s simply lying on the floor – it tops and tails the play nicely. I also spotted the similar technique in the second act, which starts with Dunyasha and Yasha emerging from the long grass and ends with Trofimov and Anya disappearing into it.
The performance itself did not disappoint. The dialogue was crisp and clear – an excellent translation by Andrew Upton – and despite the modernisms it felt right. The story hadn’t been tampered with much, although there was a car instead of a carriage and horses, but I felt there was more being said between the characters this time which may be down to the new version. Not having seen the original Russian version, I can’t tell.
But I did get a lot more out of this production than I have previously. While there was plenty of humour, the performances took the characters and their situations seriously, and set all these in an historical and political framework which made sense of every part. I could see how the cherry orchard symbolised Mother Russia, which had become exhausted through supplying beauty and luxuries to the idle rich, its fresh potential largely untapped due to the nostalgic clinging of the elite landowners. Trees for the few have to be cleared to make houses (i.e. better living conditions) for the many. There’s no place in this new Russia for those who adhere to the old ways, so Madam Ranyevskaya has to leave, and Firs, sadly neglected, can only die. Others have to make new lives as best they can – I wonder what happens to them all? Before the Revolution, that is.
Another good aspect of this production is the additional ensemble that provides the extra characters for the party scene, as well as the extra servants. It does give a much better sense of the community that exists around the estate, even if the quality of the guests isn’t up to the standards of yesteryear (according to Firs).
And so to the individual performances. Conleth Hill as Lopakhin was worth the price of admission alone. He was absolutely spot on as the peasant made good who could never shake off his past but who desperately wanted acceptance from Ranyevskaya. His plans for the estate were lucid and sensible, and his desire to help Ranyevskaya was almost palpable. He’s delighted to have bought the estate at the auction, heady with the success of it, and I felt he was at some level getting back at Madam Ranyevskaya for her rejection of him. When it came to the proposal to Varya, he might have gone ahead with it if he hadn’t been interrupted at the crucial moment. But then again, maybe not.
Emily Taaffe played Dunyasha, the maid with ideas above her station. She’s looking for romance instead of a steady husband and is easily seduced by Yasha, the manservant who has come back from Paris with Madam Ranyevskaya. She’s unlikely to have a happy life, wanting so much that she can never get. Yasha was played by Gerald Kyd and came across as a nasty piece of work, used to satisfying his own pleasure and with little concern for anything or anyone else. Dunyasha’s other suitor, Yepihodov, was played by Pip Carter, and he was brilliant at portraying this character’s complete ineptness. We could tell from his first entrance what he was like, saying all the wrong things and clumsy with it. His attempted wooing of Dunyasha in the garden scene was very funny as he strolled around trying to look manly and failing, while Yasha just sat there oozing testosterone from every pore.
Anya, played by Charity Wakefield, was fine, while Zoe Wanamaker was wonderful as Ravyenskaya. She came across as an emotional junkie, always getting involved with the wrong sort of men and with no grasp of practical matters. When she was given the telegrams in the first act she became quite upset, and it was to help distract her that Gaev, her brother, launched into his paean of praise for the bookcase, looking at her almost all the time to see if she was listening. Everyone else was aware of her unhappiness too, and I noticed several characters glance at her with sympathy. This was another strong point of this production; the reactions from everyone on stage indicated they were all involved in whatever was going on, which kept a high level of energy throughout.
Ranyevskaya’s shock at finding out who had bought the estate was also very moving, and contrasted well with Lopakhin’s jubilation. She was very still, looking out towards the audience and clearly distressed. Despite her flaws I could still understand her point of view – she’d grown up with the cherry orchard and it was all she knew. She couldn’t handle the idea of it being cut down to make way for anything, never mind holiday homes. She was also still mourning the loss of her son years before, and her brittleness was all too evident.
Claudie Blakely as Varya was another gem. She’s held things together for so long, and with so little appreciation and thanks. Her unhappiness at Lopakhin’s failed proposal was very moving. I was strongly reminded of the relationship between Sonya and Vanya from Uncle Vanya when I saw her and Gaev together, although Gaev’s probably never been as productive as Vanya was in the pre-professor days. Gaev was played by James Laurenson, and was a lovely bumbling character with great kindness and verbal diarrhoea. The billiards references weren’t emphasised so much this time, but that wasn’t a problem.
Charlotta was played by Sarah Woodward, an actress I’ve always enjoyed watching on stage. Her Charlotta was bright and snappy, but without any malice, very matter-of-fact. The magic tricks were good fun, and the appearance/disappearance was done next to a folding room divider with tall windows down to about three feet from the floor, so not a lot of room to hide people. Her dog was a cloth puppet, as was the baby at the end, of course.
Simyonov-Pishchik, constantly trying to borrow money, was played by Tim McMullan, and again I enjoyed his performance very much. (What is that white mud the Englishmen are paying him so much for?) Kenneth Cranham as Firs looked more robust than many I’ve seen, but played the faithful retainer very well, while Mark Bonnar as Trofimov caught perfectly all of that character’s passionate idealism, contempt for the past, and reluctance to do any actual work. It was interesting to note that he was just as disturbed by the arrival of the passer-by (Craige Els) as everyone else – perhaps Trofimov won’t do as well in the Revolution as he thinks.
There was plenty of dancing in this production, which made it very lively. The back wall of the nursery at the start opened out to form side walls for the garden scene, and these were then brought back for the living room in Act three. The final Act was also in this room, rather than recreating the nursery. The clarity of the dialogue, the detail in the performances and the relationships, and the superb way the story was contextualised within Russian history makes this one of the best Chekov productions I’ve ever seen, if not the very best. Full marks to the whole team.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me