The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov, English version by Trevor Griffiths
Part of The Judi Dench Collection
(2007)

Richard Eyre's 1981 production of Chekhov's classic is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this collection, with the star at her very best, playing Mme Ranevsky and getting tremendous support from a cast of current and future stars.

Set in 1903, The Cherry Orchard is another Chekhovian tale of change in the period leading up to the Russian Revolution. Eyre has chosen to set it in Scotland, at least judging by the accents of the lower classes. In terms of climate and space, this makes some sense and it enables Dame Judi to dress like Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago in the poignant final scenes.

Mme Ranevsky is an archetypal representative of the landed gentry, lavishly generous, indolent and caring about little apart from her own interests. She is counterpointed by Bill Paterson as Lopakhin, the last in a long line of serfs who within a generation has risen to a position where he can instruct and eventually usurp the family that has owned his since time immemorial.

For a little over two hours these two battle politely, although from the start we can be in no doubt as to who will be victor. However, so much of Chekhov lies in his observation of character, not only in the major players but in addition life's also-rans.

There are so many cameos to enjoy in this sumptuous version. The family of the house and orchard also contains Mme's dotty, boring brother Gayev, a part played by Frederick Treves, who really comes into his own when finally forced to face up to the symbolic loss of The Cherry Orchard and with it familial pride. Harriet Walter and Suzanne Burden play the lady's contrasting daughters, the religious depressive Varya who seems destined never to catch her man, Lopakhin; and young Anya who is forced to accept family disaster without really having had the chance to enjoy the wealth while it was there.

In different ways, a series of other actors who have subsequently had tremendous careers give fine performances. A notable effort from Timothy Spall reminds one of Norman Wisdom as the accident prone clerk, Epihkodov; Anton Lesser speaks well playing the earnest, perpetual student Trofimov; and you want to spit at David Rintoul perfectly portraying the heartless and supercilious Yasha.

Amongst the slightly and much older, Anna Massey is a very poker-faced Charlotte, while Paul Curran is exceptional as Firs, the toothless, senile old man whose final, tragic death symbolises the end of an era.

The drama is played out with wit but also heart in a gripping performance that on its own would justify the compilation of this collection, as strangely this recording was previously only available in United States.

Philip Fisher