The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov
National Theatre, London
Director – Howard Davies
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Neil Austin
Music – Dominic Muldowney
Sound Designer – Paul Groothuis
Choreographer – Lynne Page
Magic Consultant – Simon Evans
Zoe Wanamaker – Ranyevskaya
Claudie Blakley – Varya
Mark Bonnar – Trofimov
Pip Carter – Yepihodov
Kenneth Cranham – Firs
Conleth Hill – Lopakhin
Gerald Kyd – Yasha
James Laurenson – Gaev
Tim McMullan – Simyonov-Pischik
Emily Taaffe – Dunyasha
Charity Wakefield – Anya
Sarah Woodward – Charlotta
Old shoes re-souled. There’s a silent background to The Cherry Orchard for anyone born during the Cold War. The theme of social change, ambiguously written by Chekhov, took on a ferocious literalness after 1917. The niceties of the play are overshadowed by our knowledge of show trials, pogroms, and Soviet monsters to come. With all of that gone up in smoke, we find ourselves starting over. Now the opposite dilemma has appeared: what to do with a Russia sliding into irrelevancy? Putin is barely a mini-me compared to Stalin. The whole society, soaked in vodka and oil revenues, has been drained of significance: terror, class war, an ancien regime, elegiac memories, idealism, and even apparatchiks — all those soulful overtones gone flat-line.
At the National Theatre the project of resoling Chekhov’s old shoes was given, wisely, to director Howard Davies, who has made a specialty of recapturing the mood of Russia at its ripest dramatic moment, when revolution was about to squash the rotten fruit of the old elites. He’s affectionate about the lost sweetness, rigorous about the rottenness. That same pivot is inherent in The Cherry Orchard, which was premiered in 1904, thirteen years before the October Revolution. Chekhov had enough breathing room to treat the necessity for change with irony and a touch of the ridiculous in the person of the young pre-revolutionary idealist Trofimov (Mark Bonnar). He wants to be a gadfly while remaining a hanger-on of the aristocrats he stings, and they tolerate him for the sake of being amused. If we are to revivify the play, its themes need to be finely shaded, as the author intended them, and the audience must consciously forget the vicious looming future.
Davies succeeds in this project, to my mind triumphantly. Every actor on stage, and not just the crowd-drawing star, Zoe Wanamaker, is a real consciousness, not a walking symbolic prop. Stanislavski, who directed the premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre, achieved frisson by ripping away the fourth wall and exposing real people talking in ordinary prose. There’s no such frisson today; what’s left is literary characters expressing their inner contradictions through speeches that are often delivered from personal soap boxes. Servant, mistress, befuddled brother, perpetual spinster, romantic ingenue, aging beauty, and jump-up peasant — the types couldn’t be more literary if this was Congreve. It’s a wonder that Chekhov embeds them so tenderly in the softest amber, where they struggle and almost escape.
Davies leans into the historical wind only through the discordant visuals on the spacious Olivier stage. In place of a country estate decorated with tattered elegance, we get a dilapidated barn of weathered siding with a telegraph pole (!) off to one side and green turf edging the front. Is this a metaphor for turning Madame Ranyevskaya’s family inside out? A symbol for their social dilapidation? It’s not as if we need such cues — the text is drenched in those implications.
I arrived drenched by a sudden downpour while crossing the Thames footbridge, soppy and half miserable, which isn’t a bad way to enter The Cherry Orchard. And realistically, these are rather sour cherries now. No one’s heart rises at the prospect of another veddy British rendering of the play, the accents mimicking county gentry with Cockneys as the serving class. The atmosphere will be nostalgic and teary. I thought back to Vladimir Nabokov’s peevish reaction to the West’s affection for Chekhov, whom he considered a sentimentally wrong representative of the real Russia, too European by half.
Davies turns the tables by making the characters even more European in their subtle ambivalence, as psychologically refined as the self-knowing found in novels by Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust. I think this was Chekhov’s intention all along, not to foretell the Soviet catastrophe but to elevate Russian characters into fully civilized status, akin to Henry James’s Americans abroad, who are unrecognizable through the lens of Mark Twain but meticulously accurate as descendants of Stendahl. Some readers dislike the deracination that James imposes, but with so little juice left in contemporary Russia, Chekhov’s subtle genius shines again.
This production uses a theatrically canny new translation by Andrew Upton, whose fidelity to the original may be questionable (we hear a clumsy character called a bozo, and Lopatkin, for his pains at finding a way to save the cherry orchard, is called “a whiffy crap artist”), but which extracted more laughs from the audience than anyone might think possible. The chief beneficiary was Conleth Hill, a brilliant, subtle comedian, who turned Lopatkin into a tour de force, full of mixed rage, shame, greed, and self-conscious clowning — a born scene stealer. As for Wanamaker, she played to Hill with a range of responses, unpredictably repelled, disdainful, surrendering, amused, and intimate. Wanamaker’s Ranyevskaya thoroughly scoured the role of its Greer Garson overtones, never swanning across the stage or pretending to glamour. This was an abrasive, psychologically ruthless portrayal of a woman who must carry, in the world of the play, the entire weight of the old aristocracy with all its charms and sins intact. Wanamaker, a truly great actress, was fully up to the task.
They all were, really. The London critics are grocery store cats, even more impossible to please because The Cherry Orchard is trotted out so regularly. Miffed at the dull costumes — lots of brown and black — the silly telegraph pole, and the intrusions of “bozo” and “crap,” many reviewers took this production as an easy target. But the National, which chose to broadcast it worldwide in HD, knew that it had something exceptional on its hands. When it is this perfectly enacted, Chekhov’s masterpiece rends the soul of Russia and ours at the same time.