The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov
The Phil Willmott Company
Union Theatre

Richard Gibson (Gaev)
Suanne Braun
The Cherry Orchard

Wishing to avoid both ‘poignant melancholia’ and ‘chic avant-garde’, in his new production of The Cherry Orchard at the Union Theatre director Phil Willmott has chosen to move the action from the turn of the twentieth century to the spring of 1917.

The Tsar has abdicated. Citizens are protesting about the government’s incompetence; rampant young Bolsheviks are marauding through country estates. This, Willmott tells us, is the revolutionary upheaval that Chekhov’s play foreshadowed but which the playwright did not live to experience.

The set—a rather cluttered amalgamation of the interior and exterior of a fading dacha, designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust—is not particularly time-specific. The cherry orchard itself does not loom large in the visual or conceptual construct, though; and while this is understandable given practical limitations, the absence of a strong figurative presence is less tolerable.

Occasionally, the cast stare through the fourth wall into the idolised and idealised blossoms; but the polysemic weight of the orchard—which simultaneously symbolises corruption and social oppression, a formerly vibrant rural economy based on now-lost skills, nostalgic memories of youth, and ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’—is lost.

And, here lies the problem with Willmott’s time-shift. The orchard explains both the past and the present: why it was planted and why it must now be cut down to facilitate Lopakhin’s latest financial enterprise. That is, The Cherry Orchard is not driven by future revolutionary politics, but by the shifting economic structures of the late-nineteenth century, following the Emancipation Act which freed the serfs in 1861, and the contradiction of a specific social order.

It is the decline of the landed gentry which was Chekhov’s concern, as witnessed through the experiences of one aristocratic family whose desires and actions come into conflict with a social reality which has been shaped by the preceding decades, not by the events of 1917. Moreover, it is this very conflict from which the play derives its tragi-comic tone, and which inspires our own sympathy.

Willmott’s concept has required him to radically alter the language and form of Chekhov’s text, making considerable adaptations and excisions to a translation by Julius West, and interpolating ‘Bolshevik interventions’—in both text and action. Too often, the register and diction of the dialogue is anachronistic, the shouting and cursing all too twenty-first century. Perhaps this is what Willmott means when he explains that he has sought to "explore the needs of today" and "reflect our current edgy relationship with Russia"? But, only in the disjunctive linguistic register is there a sense that this is, as he argues, a "Cherry Orchard for 2018".

Textual excisions make the roles of the self-interested Yasha (Hugo Nicholson), exuberant Dunyasha (Molly Crookes) and accident-prone Yepikhodov (Alexander Huetson) mere sketches, and the cast have to work hard to establish character, relationships and dynamics.

Our appreciation of the family’s naïve obliviousness is also weakened. A tableau at the start of the second half of the production foreshadows the auction to come, but we do not feel the full impact of the changes of emotion which occur as the family partake in their usual favourite pastimes—hunting, fishing, a ball—in the shadow of the impending sale, unaware of the futility and recklessness of such indulgences.

Chekhov himself provides one tableau-moment: when the characters hear the sound of a string breaking, in the distance: literally it is the snapping of a mine cable, figuratively the fracturing of gentry life. But, how can this noise represent the sound of social transition and time sweeping past (in Chekhov’s text, the ancient retainer Fiers interprets it as a portent of doom) if the Revolution has already happened?

The definition of character is also weakened by the temporal relocation. This is problematic in the case of the permanently exiled student, Trofimov, vigorously played by Feliks Mathur. Undoubtedly, Trofimov holds sincere convictions, but his rapturous faith in revolutionary futurity“There it is—happiness—it’s coming nearer and nearer, I seem to hear its footsteps. And if we don’t see it, if we don’t know when it comes, what does it matter? Other people will see it!”—is countered by an ironic, and comic, inability to follow his own preaching that what is required is not self-admiration, but work. To make him a hero of social realism makes no sense. Moreover, why—if the Revolution he longs for has occurred—would Trofimov return to university at the end of the play to resume his political struggles?

Christopher Laishley’s Lopakhin is rather too coarsely over-confident. Lopakhin may boast about his hard-work and success but he is no greedy capitalist. A true idealist, he believes in—and unlike Tromifov fulfils—man’s potential for progress, but he is capable of complexity, and is disturbed and perplexed by the unhappy social world around him. He may be aware that he cannot cast off his humble roots, but he is no triumphant oaf, as he sometimes appears in this production: as Chekhov himself said, "[Varya] would not have fallen in love with some grasping peasant".

Laishley conveys Lopakhin’s energy and resourcefulness but captures little of his innate decency and sensitivity. Nor his genuine feelings for Ranyenskaya, when he recalls all she did for him in the past, "I love you like my own flesh and blood… more than my own flesh and blood?" Only when Laishley recounts the events of the auction does he hint at a genuine, raw anguish.

Suanne Braun’s Ranyevskaya seems strangely subdued, for the textual adaptations weaken Ranyevskaya’s stoic dignity, impetuous thoughtlessness and deluded fragility. As she gazes upon the nursery, her rather mundane lament—something along the lines of "this is my life, this is all I’ve known"—lacks the pathos of Chekhov’s specificity: “Oh my childhood, my innocence! In this nursery I slept, from this room I looked out at the orchard… If only I could forget the past!”

In fact, Willmott has pulled the primary focus from Ranyevskaya and placed it upon her adopted daughter, Varya, and to a lesser extent Anya. Lakesha Cammock’s Varya is more stroppy and dour than Chekhov’s "serious and religious young lady" but she has a strong stage presence. Lucy Menzies effectively evokes Anya’s fresh optimism and willingness to look ahead and grow.

It is Richard Gibson, as Gaev, who most credibly embodies character, time and place, both physically and verbally, touchingly capturing the billiard-obsessive’s deluded eccentricity, and his tragi-comic blend of fantasy and fatalism. As Charlotta, Emma Manton also presents a strong impersonation of the comic governess whose angry throwing of her swaddled ‘child’ to the ground abruptly impresses upon both family and audience the reality of her destitution at the close of the play. I’m not sure why Willmott decided to turn the neighbouring landowner Boris Simeonov-Pishchik into Madame Pishchika, but Caroline Wildi largely avoids caricature in illuminating the financial fecklessness of the aristocracy.

One change to Chekhov’s text that Willmott could not avoid was the omission of the role of Fiers, following an unfortunate accident which resulted in Robert Donald fracturing his hip, before press night. But, while Willmott devises a pragmatic solution for the closing moments, the play is inevitably diminished by the absence of one whose nostalgic reminiscences about pre-Emancipation days when "everyone was happy" and "the dried cherries were soft and juicy and sweet and scented" offer a necessary counterpoint to Trofimov’s revolutionary fervour.

Ranyevskaya’s concluding remark, “we shall depart, and not a living soul will remain behind”, rings with bitter irony when Fiers finds himself forgotten, locked up in the shuttered house, destined to succumb—a dead soul—to the encroaching winter. When Fiers submits to his fate, “I’ll lie down for a bit, then … No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing …”, we appreciate that it is the characters’ inertia, so often comic, that is also their tragedy.

It is the overwhelming hopelessness of this realisation that is so regrettably absent from Willmott’s production.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour

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