“The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms”
The original intention of Chekhov was for “The Cherry Orchard” to be a comedy; yet when it was first staged in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, the writer/director Constantin Stanislavski turned it into a tragedy. If not distressed, Chekhov was very irritated by the misrepresentation of his work. Enough to put him in a mild state of depression. Ever since, there has been much discussion on the multi-layered nature of the play’s message.
Sean Mathias’ production at Theatre Royal, Windsor knows which side of the fence it lies and undoubtedly remains true to Chekhov’s intentions. With the help of a stellar cast the humour of the piece shines through and is maintained throughout the overly long two and a half hours running time. This is no mean feat, given that the characters themselves are generally not the comic type. Yet the wonderful ensemble cast bring out the flaws and the foolishness; the childishness in a seemingly mature group of people. It’s a kind of coming-of-age story for those who have already long come of age.
Fresh from the demands of his trail-blazing and age-defying Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen is taking a step back, trying to blend into the background as the elderly servant Firs. There is a danger of his cameo becoming the lead but his generosity and sheer attention to the detail of how his character fits into the narrative lead to what is both a show-stealing performance, yet allowing his fellow actors to plunder as much as they can. Robert Daws is an absolute delight as the cash strapped moocher, overflowing with optimism and drunken charm and bouncing off Martin Shaw’s more successful but less confident Lopakhin. Shaw skilfully managed to mix a self-conscious awareness of Lopakhin’s peasant background with a cocksure sense of his own right to cut the privileged down to size (and ultimately cut down their beloved cherry orchard).
Francesca Annis, as Ranyevskaya the owner of the estate, swoops onto the stage majestically. No stranger to personal tragedy, she still seems clothed in waves of happiness. Yet Annis has the skill to show us the many tears and gashes that are covered up. The childlike way she greets her furniture as affectionately as her family is simultaneously ridiculous and tender. Her mix of tragedy and comedy is most (there’s only one way to put it) Chekhovian. But the minor characters also manage to have a major effect. Missy Malek and Kezrena James as the two sisters; and Alis Wyn Davies as the maid, Dunyasha, are names to look out for. Alison Halstead gives a fireball of a performance as the circus performer, trickster come governess, Charlotte. The only one who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the sense of fun that can be had with these characters is Jenny Seagrove, who plays the brother Gaev with a touch too much seriousness and lack of colour.
This is a piece that focuses on the characters and their interactions more than the story. After all, not an awful lot happens. In Act One, the cherry orchard is in danger of being sold, in Act Two it is on the verge of being sold, in Act Three it is sold, and in Act Four it has been sold. The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms and rambling lives that are just about keeping afloat. Much to relate to. There is tragedy everywhere, but we don’t always want to focus on that. This show, led by the inimitable McKellen et al, encompasses Chekhov’s spirit and lets us laugh at the seriousness of it all. Even if only for a couple of hours, but it is worth every minute.
“The production is visually stunning and the action carefully choreographed, with clear lines of symmetry throughout”
Written in 1900, and first performed in 1901, Three Sisters is one of Chekhov’s best known plays. If you’re a theatre lover, chances are you will have seen it performed at least once. What you almost certainly won’t have seen is the play as it was written, in Russian. (Don’t worry, there are surtitles). The Maly Drama Theatre production is in London from St. Petersburg, and plays at the Vaudeville for ten days; it is, quite simply, the best Chekhov this reviewer has seen in thirty years of theatre-going.
The play takes as its subject the lives of three orphaned sisters – Olga, Masha and Irina – who, together with their brother Andrey, live with two old family retainers – Anfisa and Ferapont – in provincial Russia; the family having decamped from the sisters’ beloved Moscow eleven years previously. The action, such as it is, takes place over the course of several years, during which Andrey marries, Irina is courted by various different suitors and Masha has an intense extra-marital romance with one of the visiting soldiers, Vershinin. Ultimately, the soldiers leave, and the family is left adrift. The sisters realise that they will never leave and that their dream of returning to Moscow will never come to pass.
Three Sisters is, of course, a tale of lost hopes, but it is also a hymn to the continuous and eternal flow of life itself; Lev Dodin’s brilliant direction ensures that we never lose sight of this central Chekhovian ambiguity, and that the play, and the characters, steer clear of the mawkish self-indulgence with which they can sometimes be tarnished. Dodin steers with a steady hand, and, with the aid of pitch-perfect lighting and set design (credit here to Damir Ismagilov and Alexander Borovsky) the arc of the play is incredibly clear. The house, quite rightly, has a powerful presence here, and the simple device of the frontage moving ever further downstage as the action proceeds, cleverly underlines the family’s inability to escape.
Dodin likes to paint stage pictures. The production is visually stunning and the action carefully choreographed, with clear lines of symmetry throughout. This stylisation never seems heavy-handed however, continually off-set as it is by the warmth and truth of his talented cast. Hearing the play in its original language frees up the humanity of Chekhov’s characters. Language shapes sensibility, and the sound of spoken Russian lends a humour and warmth to these people that is impossible to capture in translation.
This is not to take away from the enormous skill of the cast. The three sisters themselves – Irina Tychinina as Olga, Ksenia Rappoport as Masha and Ekaterina Tarasova as Irina – are stupendous. Each is perfectly defined against the other, and each woman seems almost to physically transform over the course of the action. This is true too of Ekaterina Kleopina’s Natasha, thoroughly convincing in her journey from gauche intruder to self-satisfied matron. Oleg Ryazantzev charms as the hapless Baron, and Sergey Vlasov’s Kuligin is the perfect mix of provinicial pomposity and tender heartedness. Igor Chernevich’s Vershinin perhaps lacks a bit of Moscow glamour – necessary to attract Masha and work against his lugubrious take on life – but this is a niggle when taking on board the excellent work of the ensemble throughout.
Although the pace does slacken a bit after the interval, and the production loses a bit of drive, the two hours and forty five minutes seems like half that, which is quite something for a surtitled piece of work. All in all, it’s a consummate evening at the theatre. A perfect introduction to Chekhov if you don’t know his work, and an illumination of his genius if you do.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography courtesy Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg