The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov
Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre
Barbican Theatre
to

The first words in The Cherry Orchard belong to Lopakhin, the young upstart who will buy the estate from under the noses of its impoverished aristocratic landowners: “the train has arrived, thank God.” The last word (nedotyopa) to abandoned old family retainer Firs, translated in surtitles as “silly-billy”.

And there’s a whole world of possibilities in-between. Between the old ways and the new. We could be giants but look how small we are, one of Chekhov’s refrains… There are silly pranks, a cacophony of chatter, dancing, singing and guns held to temples. And voices echoing in the dark: the last act almost entirely in a torch-lit gloom.

Billed as a “mystical grotesque” and a “metaphysical thriller”, director Vladimir Mirzoev cooks up a juicy concoction, extravagant in symbolism and absurdity, out of Chekhov’s last play. Mirzoev’s character assessments and assassinations are vividly presented in tension between word and deed. How our body language gives us away. Be it a hundred years ago on the cusp of change or now on the cusp of change…

Lopakhin’s train has surely arrived. The son and grandson of serfs (slaves) on the estate where they were not even allowed into the kitchen, it is his turn now. No wonder he dances a merry jig when he drops his triumphant bombshell in the third act. He can’t believe it himself.

Mirzoev’s version is a meditation on how that has come to pass: the ineffectual old order, so infantilized by its lifestyle that it can’t hang on to what it owns. And the new, the idealists and voracious businessmen: how it chimed then and chimes now. Time is one of Chekhov’s eternal themes. And time has been mashed up in this strangely detached production.

Chekhov had some skin in this: his grandfather was a serf, till he bought himself out. He wrote to his friend and publisher A Suvorin, “write about this man who, drop by drop, squeezes the slave's blood out of himself until he wakes one day to find the blood of a real human being—not a slave's—coursing through his veins.” Just imagine people owning other people, says the eternal student Petya Trofimov to impressionable Anya (Taisiya Vilkova), young daughter of estate owner Lyubov Ranevskaya.

The play opens with Lopakhin in bed with the maid Dunyasha (Anastasia Mitrazhik), who is a minx of a girl, anybody’s really, as she proves wooing Lyubov’s stuck-up valet Yasha (Vladimir Motashnev). There’s lots of sexual tension and predation—what else is there to do in the country… And guess which book Lopakhin was reading before he dozed off—that’s right—The Cherry Orchard and he didn't understand a word of it… boom boom...

Lopakhin tries it on with nearly all the women. Now we know why he won’t propose to Varya (Natalia Reva-Ryadinskaya). It is evident he loves Lyubov, too. Who doesn't—she’s a beautiful woman in her prime. Her name means love. Stage and screen actors Victoria Isakova and Alexander Petrov make a fine couple: she in a dream, he virile yet servile with her.

Even Trofimov (Alexander Dmitriev), who preaches that he is above love, makes a fool of himself stripping off in front of Lyubov (his admirable physique gets some wolf whistles from the audience—yes it’s that sort of a relaxed evening, latecomers for a whole hour into the show, smelly food and drink).

The Jewish orchestra (a compact trio band here) of act three is a permanent feature and they are most welcome, underscoring emotions and choreographed movement. And as for that act three ball, well, it’s a bathing party by the river, everyone in swimsuits, even old Firs. No wonder Simeonov-Pishchik (Konstantin Pohmelov) has trouble finding where he’s put his money.

Alexander Lisyansky’s steeply raked set made up of old doors—I thought it was a flat pack that would spring up to make a house—is ingenious. Doors open into the stage’s bowels from whence comes the ‘travelling players’ cast in ghostly phalanx—reminding me of Vakhtangov Theatre’s expressionistic Uncle Vanya, which made such a big impression on me in 2012.

They are the living dead, all needing blood transfusions, which conveniently drop from the flies. The main feature is a large cross, made of three thick beams, on which one could easily hang or crucify oneself. Or is it the grave where Lyubov’s little boy Grisha lies, whose death saw her escape to France and an improper life unbefitting her status?

Vaudevillian Charlotta Ivanovna (Vera Voronkova) is more than a German-accented governess and amateur magician: she seems to be able to bring Grisha back from the dead, in duplicate. The watchful boy is ever-present. With her flaming red hair, she takes me to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Is she Death or Fate, I wonder, as she grips Firs’s finger?

Metaphors and imagery come not in single spies but in battalions. Another beam descends: its uses simple, a swing, a table, a couch. Suitcases are prominent—nothing is stable. Poor Firs (Mikhail Zhigalov) gets into a right spin, literally. Chairs are arranged as if seats on a roller coaster; the stage picture is often split in two.

All seem uninhibited, even the usually buttoned-up Varya, who knocks back the vodka with Anya. And Gayev (Andrey Sukhov) is simply a spoiled child, a glutton to boot, whilst I can’t make Yepikhodov (Sergey Miller) out at all. And here’s the rub. If you don't know the play I fear it will take some time to work out who they all are. I reread it the night before in the original, and had to work hard to connect. There were some empty seats after the interval, but I suspect these were vacated by the older generation of expat Russians, lovers of the old style Chekhov.

I read somewhere that the artistic director of Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, Evgeny Pisarev, said that this version will irritate some people. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, which follows in the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre’s three-play programme at the Barbican, makes me wonder if Mirzoev isn’t partial to Brecht’s alienation effect.

“The Pushkin Theatre would like to acknowledge the generous support of Roman Abramovich.”

Vera Liber