Pros: The obviously enthusiastic cast make a decent attempt at Chekhovian drama.
Cons: An awkward adaptation, misguided direction and a lack of depth let this production down.
Why do we still love and perform Chekhov? Over a hundred years since the great Russian playwright’s death, this is a valid question, and one that director Phil Willmott tries to answer in his programme notes for Cherry Orchard (theThe has mysteriously vanished) at the Union Theatre. He wants to make the play as ‘urgent, immediate and unpredictable as the modern Russian world’. However admirable this ambition may be, this underwhelming production seems to focus most on getting through the rather sprawling turn-of-the-century family story and leaves the audience wondering where the supposedly visceral relevance to modern life lies.
The set, with its versatile wooden steps and boards, the obligatory birch-like branches hanging from the ceiling and mist everywhere seems promising enough. The costumes are also well-suited to this tale of an aristocratic Russian family on the verge of losing their estate against the backdrop of the beginnings of revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. Sadly, the production’s success ends there. Firstly, a lot of Chekhov thrives on subtlety and the balance of ever-understated humour and devastation, a balance which is thoroughly upset by frequent unnecessary shouting and overacting from much of the cast. When Chekhov himself called this play a ‘farce’, it is hard to believe this is what he intended. Secondly, the only updating that seems to have happened is the very awkward new adaption – in what is perhaps an attempt to counteract Chekhov’s occasional slow wordiness, conversation now jumps unnaturally and nonsensically from one topic to another. Furthermore, an overabundance of reeled-off explanatory speeches creates a sense of the actors telling, not showing, the story, when Chekhov’s true talent lies in showing, not telling. One can’t help feel that the juxtaposition of an agonisingly decaying bourgeoisie and the rumblings of revolution ought to create a much more gripping tale, even through the lens of insular family drama, than this production provides.
Whenever one spies seeds of something really interesting in the play – for example, the idea that the son of a former serf may end up owning his family’s owners’ estate – one quickly realises that these are contained in the excellent bones of Chekhov’s tale, not the production. When the Russian revolutionaries burst dramatically through the door in the last scene – ‘the cherry orchard belongs to all of us now’ – it feels more like a re-enactment on the History Channel, grateful for any audience tuning in. The Cherry Orchard endures – but in the wrong hands, Chekhov’s last masterpiece can quickly wither.
Writer: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Phil Willmott from a translation by Julius West)
Director: Phil Willmott
Producer: Sasha Regan (The Phil Willmott Company)
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking Link: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/the-cherry-orchard.html
Booking Until: 7th April 2018