Taking liberties with Russia’s greatest pre-revolutionary play
By Charles Spencer for the Daily Telegraph
12:01PM BST 18 May 2011
The first thing to be said about Howard Davies’s new production of The Cherry Orchard is that is wonderfully fresh, funny and deeply felt, and ravishingly designed by Bunny Christie.
The second is that the Australian writer Andrew Upton, who is responsible for this new – and very free – version of Chekhov’s last and in my view greatest play, should be taken out of the theatre and thrown into the Thames along with his script.
m all in favour of a vivid modern translation, but it ought also to reflect the age in which the play is set. The Cherry Orchard, first staged in 1904, precisely captures the social undercurrents in Russia at the time, and the first stirrings of profound social change. Just a year after the play’s premiere in 1904, the Tsar’s Guards fired on peaceful protesters at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, and a wave of rebellion swept across the country. A dozen years later came the Revolution.
Chekhov’s play seems eerily prescient of all this, particularly in the character of the radical eternal student Trofimov (Mark Bonnar). But there is no need to offer a version of the play that often makes Chekhov sound like some spotty Royal Court dramatist writing today.
Within the first few minutes we hear such phrases as “Oh bollocks”, “every single bloody time” and learn of people earning “25 to 30K a year”.
This becomes downright farcical at the moment when the peasant-turned-entrepreneur Lopakhin, who will eventually buy the bankrupt estate, declares: “I’ve told you a thousand bloody, frigging, bloody, frigging times” as he advises the destitute and feckless aristocratic family how they night save themselves from disaster. The effect is merely ridiculous, for the rest of the staging is scrupulously in period.
Yet if you can put this absurdity aside – and it is undoubtedly a struggle – much of the production is superb. Howard Davies has directed a string of virtuosic productions of Russian plays at the National, from Gorky’s Philistines to Bulgakov’s The White Guard , and here he captures that distinctive Chekhovian mood of wild humour and piercing sadness to perfection. Meanwhile the cast is one of the finest ensembles I have ever seen at the National.
As the doomed landowner Ranyevskaya, Zoe Wanamaker heart-wrenchingly captures the character’s mixture of reckless frivolity and sudden moments of piercing guilt and grief as she thinks of her drowned son and her parasitic lover
James Laurenson is both funny and affecting as her dreamy brother, constantly keeping reality at bay with absurd speeches and imaginary games of billiards, while Claudie Blakley is almost unbearably poignant as Ranyevskaya’s plain, adopted daughter waiting desperately for a marriage proposal that never comes
Despite the dire modernisms he is required to spout, Conleth Hill beautifully conveys the mixture of affection and exasperation with which Lopakhin regards the doomed aristocratic family, and there are wonderful comic turns in smaller roles from Sarah Woodward as a gruff, displaced governess-cum-magician and Tim McMullan as a bonkers neighbour.
At its considerable best, this is a great production, and it is painful to see it undermined by the idiocies of Upton’s script.