Review: The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre

“Everything that people say is so much fluff and nothing”

The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekhov’s final play and although the Old Vic saw Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project tackling it a few years back with a version by Tom Stoppard, it was last seen at the National Theatre a decade ago with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. This production though sees director Howard Davies reuniting with Andrew Upton with whom he worked on Philistines and The White Guard as they continue to explore 20th century Russian theatre writing and also with leading lady Zoë Wanamaker after their wildly successful collaboration on last year’s All My Sons.

Telling of the terminal decline of the Russian ruling classes at the beginning of the twentieth century, Chekhov’s play is presented in a new version by Andrew Upton which provides a straightforward directness to the text, which is at time effective but also intermittently problematic. For me, it was just too modern for its own good, laced through with random words, colloquialisms and phrases that kept jolting me out of the period setting with some really strange choices, the Nina Simone song lyric being a particularly jarring example. When Upton imposes less on the writing, beautiful and powerful moments arise, it would just be nice if they were allowed to flow better.

As the highly irresponsible yet irrepressible Ranyevskaya whose bankrupt return to her family home after years, Zoë Wanamaker is predictably excellent even in this, the final preview. Sporting a nifty range of beautifully designed coats, her flighty nature and insistence on maintaining the social whirl she is accustomed to is neatly counterpointed by a deep melancholy that manifests itself in gorgeously spoken reminiscences and the harrowing wordless angst as bad news she has been avoiding is finally delivered. But above there’s a steely resilience to her portrayal, she may be knocked down but never out. She is supported well by James Laurenson as her daffy brother Gaev and Conleth Hill as the self-made Lopakhin whose plans to save the estate are repeatedly snubbed, both men considerably upping the comedic quotient of the production.

This is a very classy ensemble full of impeccable performances throughout though: Claudie Blakley makes for a likeable though buttoned-up Varya, her final, ignored, breakdown is a painfully beautiful moment; Charity Wakefield’s Anya is nicely impassioned, connecting well with Mark Bonnar’s earnest Trofimov and there’s great comic support from a blustering Tim McMullan as Pishchik and the delightfully oddly hair-styled Sarah Woodward as Charlotta. Kenneth Cranham steals his scenes though as the ever-present Firs, often just standing still for the majority of a scene but a magnificent presence and still possessed of a biting wit at times.

Gerald Kyd’s lascivious manservant Yasha is a much stronger presence in the play than I previously remembered, thoroughly obnoxious at times in both the way he treats the maid besotted with him, a powerful little performance from Emily Taaffe, and the way he treats his employers with disdain and scornful laughter. Symptomatic of the crumbling social structures between master and servant but there was also the intriguing hint of a sexual relationship with Ranyevskaya – surprisingly, it is Kyd’s performance I remember the most.

In the end though, as with many of Chekhov’s works, there is something of a laboured feel as nearly 3 hours passes by without an awful lot actually happening. There’s much discussion about what might happen and what is going to happen, but more often than not, the feeling is close to ‘just get on with it’… no matter how well acted it is. Davies also employs a rather odd trick of having much of the dialogue of the first half being spoken out to the audience despite there being a room or field full of people, I found it most disconcerting. Bunny Christie’s design is expansive and fills the space of the Olivier well with her grimy, almost dilapidated set but it isn’t the most pleasant thing to look at and I would have liked more of Dominic Muldowney’s music.

Altogether I was little ambivalent about this Cherry Orchard, it never fully subsumed me into its world and crucially I just didn’t really connect emotionally with what was happening. Too many moments are fumbled: the arrival back at the house, the repeated running around of extras during the party, even the transition from everyone leaving the house to Firs’ solitary reveal is drawn out inexorably even though the finishing post is so close. And the use of the word fluff twice annoyed more than you can possibly imagine. But it is elegant and an excellently acted production and largely well put together, thus well worth the £12 seats if you can get one as it is part of the Travelex season.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 28th July, it will also be broadcast as part of the NT Live season on 30th July

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