The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov

Theatre Royal Bath – an Oxford Stage Company production

(2003)

Review by Pete Wood

In his book Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer writes of his thwarted attempts to write a serious biography of the author D H Lawrence. I’ve found myself similarly mired, though in frustration rather than ire, in trying to write a review of Oxford Stage Company’s production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, currently playing in London after its opening at Bath’s Theatre Royal (See Philip Fisher's review).

I’d looked forward to the show with some anticipation, despite seeing a first-rate production at the National Theatre only a few years ago starring the inimitable Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, aware of the high reputation of the company under the directorship of Dominic Dromgoole whose recent production of the Russian playwright’s Three Sisters elicited excited reviews.

It is a play too that I admire and have enjoyed for its humour, its art and its profound understanding and clinical skewering of the vanities and vicissitudes of human existence. Yet there was a problem viewing and subsequently reviewing this production. Put simply, I couldn’t and can’t work up any enthusiasm about it. I didn’t hate it, but then I didn’t like it either. Somehow it failed to connect, my first with a Chekhov production. It is only fair to point out here that this adaptation, featuring a new translation by Samuel Adamson, has been reviewed favourably by the critics of two national newspapers thus far so perhaps the problem is with me.

The first, welcoming thing, to say about this production is that it features a variety of English and UK accents – Geordie, Northern Irish, Scottish, a refreshing change from English actors pretending to be Russian. A similar gambit was used in the Young Vic adaptation of Lope De Vega’s Peribanez, sidestepping the embarrassing spectacle of English actors pretending to be Spanish. The translation too has a fresh, spikier feel. Chekhov could be salty in his language and isn’t the native playwright of demure sitting room drama he can sometimes be made to be.

The set though is dreadful. Some reviewers recently have grumbled loudly about the set of the RSC’s brilliant adaptation of Ibsen’s Brand, because it didn’t give us mountains and fjords. I’ve no problem with minimalism but the "dangling curtains of …overblown cotton buds", as one reviewer has accurately described them, to suggest the cherry orchard blossom, are just naff.

This didn’t seem the funniest Cherry Orchard (which a Freudian slip of the keyboard translated into The Cheery Orchard) I’ve seen and Chekhov did intend people to laugh at his work – in the right places – but then, as I’ve said, it didn’t really move me. Some people have suggested Vanessa Redgrave was over the top as Ranevskaya, something one couldn’t accuse Geraldine James of here. Personally I liked the vim and vigour she and the rest of the cast brought to the play. Isn’t passion and the thwarting of it part of the point of Chekhov – witness Kristin Scott Thomas’s recent unforgettable portrayal of Masha in Three Sisters at the Playhouse?

I liked Trevor Fox’s Lopakhin and Abigail McKern’s Charlotta but, these performances aside, I found this production curiously bloodless. Discuss.