The Cherry Orchard
Anton Chekhov (translation by Stephen Mulrine)
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Rose Theatre, Kingston
With his production of The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre last year, Howard Davies announced his intention to get away from a conventional, genteel, nostalgic and "Englishy" approach to Chekhov, one typified by what the director referred to as "linen suits and parasols." The results, however, were mixed. Despite some striking moments and strong performances from a stellar cast, Davies's production turned out to be a slightly ponderous affair overall, hampered by an uneven and occasionally jarring translation by Andrew Upton.
But here, happily, is a production that more successfully achieves Davies's aims. Andrew Hilton's superb, sparsely-staged take on Chekhov's last play—originally produced for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and now at Kingston Rose—proves altogether livelier, brisker and more involving than Davies's. Sharply attuned to the play's quick shifts in tone, Stephen Mulrine's spry, accomplished translation succeeds in bringing out the comedy of the piece without sacrificing its pathos. The mood moves from merriment to melancholy (and back again) in compelling, quicksilver fashion.
Transplanted to the Rose auditorium, Hilton's production may have lost some of the intimacy that it had at the Tobacco Factory, but it still resonates. Despite (or perhaps because of) the low-key approach, the director and his cast manage to convey the play's precarious historical moment—that of a world poised on the brink of a new social order—with admirable clarity and focus (as well as a rather Beckettian final flourish). The most familiar moments emerge freshly minted here, often yielding new insights into the protagonists and their dilemmas.
Indeed, this is a production that doesn't shy away from the oddity of Chekhov's characterisation, but embraces it. And the acting is rich and detailed across the board. Julia Hills beautifully captures the complexity of Madame Ranevskaya in a brilliant performance that variously conveys the character's exuberance at her return to Russia, her skittishness, her pain at her past, and her refusal to confront the reality of what needs to be done with her beloved cherry orchard.
Simon Armstrong presents a genial Lopakhin whose affability gives way to an explosive eruption into anger and triumph in the play's key scene. Paul Brendan's hapless, squeaky-shoed Yepikhodov, Roland Oliver's jovial, drunk Simeonov-Pishchik and Paul Nicholson's confused, mumbling Firs create a marvellous comic atmosphere, and there is equally vivid work from Christopher Bianchi as Gaev, Saskia Portway as the governess Charlotta, Dorothea Myers-Bennett and Eleanor Yates as Vayra and Anya and Benjamin O'Mahony as Trofimov.
There have been much starrier, more elaborate Cherry Orchards than this one staged in recent years. but few that have better captured the strange brew of humour, irony and sadness in Chekhov's play, or its sense of a world on the brink of momentous change. Recommended.
Reviewer: Alex Ramon