“Lipman gives an exemplary performance in control and poise”
Maureen Lipman shows herself to be a consummate storyteller in Martin Sherman’s epic turn of the millennium one-woman play. Directed by Scott Le Crass, Lipman sits almost unmoving for two and a half hours as she relates the life-story of Rose, an eighty-year-old Jewish survivor of the previous century’s turmoil.
Rose sits purposefully on a wooden bench, centre stage, observing shiva; for whom we do not initially know. With a minimal set (Designer David Shields), two walls meet behind where she sits. Understated light changes – red, purple, lilac (Lighting Designer Jane Lalljee) and subtle background music and sound effects – music from an accordion, train noise, flames of the burning Warsaw ghetto, the soft thud of a rifle shot (Sound Designer and Composer Julian Starr) – reflect and illustrate Rose’s recollections.
Rose chats to us, mixing the prosaic with the sensational. For Lipman, it is a great feat of concentration and stamina. For the audience too there is a lot to listen to; every word seems important.
Rose’s remarkable story takes her from a pogrom in her native Ukraine, to the Warsaw ghetto, into Germany, and onto a barely seaworthy ship heading for Palestine pursued by the British Navy. Along the way she recounts her loves and losses including that of her first husband and the shooting of her only daughter. Finally escaping a refugee train heading to ‘nowhere’ in Europe, Rose enters America.
Rose admits herself to being an unreliable narrator. Does her recollection of Cossacks ransacking the family home come from a real childhood memory or a scene from Fiddler on the Roof? Despite the deep subject, there is much humour in the telling. Some comments are genuinely funny, some poignant, some ironic. And when Lipman lands a joke her eyes twinkle and a wry smile shares the humour with the audience. Only once does Lipman raise her voice above the conversational and the scene is the most impactful for that.
It is no wonder that the second half of the play cannot keep up with the pace as Rose embarks on a new life in America with husband number two, who himself cannot live up to the memories of lost husband number one. Perhaps one domestic story here is a trifle long and some direction in the narrative is lost. Until, that is, members of Rose’s family become involved in hostilities on the West Bank which stir up feelings in Rose that her life has been one long conflict. And thus her need to sit shiva. And to share her story.
Maureen Lipman gives an exemplary performance in control and poise. There are no histrionics, her power lies in her natural timing, use of silence, and her ability to hold the audience to her every word and every breath. A masterclass in acting.
“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.