The Cherry Orchard
Reviewed – 17th March 2018
“the performances are unrushed and powerfully moving”
From the very opening we realise that this is a ‘Cherry Orchard’ with a difference. As part of a series of classic plays relevant to today, Phil Willmott’s adaptation is set in 1917 amidst the Bolshevik uprising, the murder of the Tsar and the uncertain future of the middle classes; it is almost fast-forwarding to the consequences Chekhov hinted at when he wrote it in 1903. Ranyevskaya returns to Russia after five years in France and faces the prospect of having to sell her beloved family home to the son of a serf who had worked for them. To heighten the immediacy and urgency felt in modern Russia, features like music and magic have been left out, avoiding any slackening of pace, the compact stage area concentrates the action, and the outcome of the play fits the confusion of both then and now. To add to the unpredictability, the role of the elderly footman Fiers has been cut, due to a fall suffered by the actor, Robert Donald. ‘Cherry Orchard’ is a play which revolves around memories in times of change so Fiers’ absence means missing the richness of the most distant past but with it more focus on the present.
Far from the lofty grandeur of larger stages, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust cleverly create faded opulence with the simple use of stairs and significant props. The lighting by Sam Waddington dresses the changes of mood and atmosphere, and the music and sound (Theo Holloway) are imaginatively designed to both set the scene and underline key moments of drama, though the sinister rumbling of the overhead trains is presumably unplanned. Penn O’Gara’s attention to detail of the costumes adds dimension to the personalities.
The individuality and ensemble of the actors is perfectly crafted. Each one’s complexity interlocking with the others to bring an array of emotions. Suanne Braun and Richard Gibson are excellent as the aristocrat Ranyevskaya and her brother Gaev, instilling huge sympathy despite their superficial, frivolous lives. Lopakhin, played by Christopher Laishley, portrays the strength of the rising middle classes but painful awareness of his roots. Dunyasha (Molly Crookes) and Yasha (Hugo Nicholson) represent the servants, breaking away from the past constraints of their position with a confidence and ease in several entertaining scenes. Even the smaller role of Madame Pishchik (a male landowner in the original) played by Caroline Wildi, is a subtly uncomfortable presence on stage, as a further reminder of the plight of the rich. Daughter Anya and former tutor Trofimov (Lucy Menzies and Feliks Mathur) radiate the youthful optimism as the country trembles with uncertainty.
As Director, Phil Willmott succeeds in producing a disquieting ‘Cherry Orchard’, stepping away from the traditional, more static Chekhov and connecting with today’s social climate in Russia. Apart from a couple of instances where the tension is broken precipitately, the performances are unrushed and powerfully moving, maintaining the farcical tragedy. In keeping with element of the unforeseen, the intentional changes to the script combine with the unexpected loss of Fiers to make this a brave and intelligent production, deserving credit for reawakening a classic to new interpretation.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
The Cherry Orchard
Union Theatre until 7th April