Theatre Review - 'The Cherry Orchard'

Posted by Alexander Hay

Chevkhov's eulogy for a changing Russia is brought vividly to life

A way of life faces the chop in The Cherry Orchard

Wild humour goes hand in hand with sadness and sorrow in Howard Davies' finely balanced new production of Anton Chekhov's late masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, now at the NT's Olivier auditorium.

The play is set at the very start of the twentieth century and captures with great clarity a poignant moment in Russian history, a time when the first stirrings of profound social change occurred as a wave of rebellion was to sweep across the country, leading inexorably towards 1917.

Impoverished aristocrat Madame Ranyevskaya returns more or less bankrupt to her Russian estate after ten years abroad. Luxuriating in her fading moneyed world and regardless of the increasingly hostile forces outside, she and her brother snub the lucrative scheme of Lopakhin, a peasant turned entrepreneur, to save the family estate. In so doing, they put their lives to auction and seal the fate of their beloved orchard.

This is a play in which characterisation and political insight - Chekhov perfectly nailed a moment of seismic transition in Russian history - take precedence over plot. But while not strongly dramatic, Davies makes its emotional conflicts and anxieties three dimensional, presenting a picture of living, breathing people caught up in something far bigger than themselves. Furthermore he manages to bring out the often neglected humour of the writing - Chekhov himself described his final play as " a comedy in places, even a farce" - so that the work appears fresh, funny and deeply felt.

However, Andrew Upton's translation is peppered with anachronisms, some work, others seem merely crude and misplaced. But they do not diminish the moments of measured poetry as character relationships are probed in an articulate and illuminating way.

Surprisingly, there is no sign of the cherry trees, though we do hear them being felled, or those typical Chekovian stand-bys - samovars and parasols - but Bunny Christie's lovingly dilapidated set, with its dark wooden walls and windows that need a good clean, certainly captures the mood of faded optimism so intrinsic to the spirit of the work. 

This is a production studded with good performances, led by a particularly moving one by Zoe Wanamaker as the impulsive, generous and infuriating Madame Ranyevskaya, whose reckless frivolity is combined with moments of piercing guilt and grief as she remembers her drowned son and parasitic lover. James Laurenson impresses as her ineffectual brother, while Claudie Blakley is most poignant as her adopted daughter, waiting in vain for a marriage proposal that never comes, and Conleith Hill is spot on as Lopakhin, a self-made, decent man, always aware of his family's past as serfs. 

In short, then, an engaging, unsentimental production of a play that always brings new and rewarding insights on every viewing.

By Laurence Green

Plays in repertory until July 28.

Box Office: 0207 452 3000

Press: 0207 452 3333

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Alexander Hay

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