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The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre

Anton Chekhov (translation by Andrew Upton) 

Directed by Howard Davies
Courtesy of National Theatre
Last year saw a huge revival of Chekhov productions to mark 150 years since the author’s birth. A highly influential, but notoriously difficult-to-read author, Chekhov is a polarising figure, especially in Theatre. While some praise his depictions of life in his works (his ‘theatre of mood’) others are frustrated by his lengthy and heavy plays. With this in mind, staging a Chekhov at the National is a brave choice, and furthermore, a formidable challenge, especially in the cavernous Olivier Theatre. How then, does Howard Davies’ staging of The Cherry Orchard fare? It is a difficult question to answer. In some respects, it succeeds in breathing life into the characters and plotline of this much-celebrated author’s text, but at nearly 3 hours long, it still fails to keep you wanting more once the metaphorical curtain comes down.

The Cherry Orchard
was one of Chekhov’s later plays, and was staged only after the playwright had actually all together dropped the idea of theatre, following the critical washout of The Seagull in 1896. Still, it has grown to become one of his more famous plays, second only perhaps, to The Seagull itself. The plot is, like in many of his pieces, a relatively intricate one, rendered more complex by the relationships between the various characters, always heavily based on their respective social class. In short, the play revolves around a now heavily-indebted ex-bourgeois family who refuse to sacrifice their high-brow lifestyle even though they know it will eventually lead to their (financial) ruin. Andrew Upton’s new translation does well not to get bogged down by the language and social complexities of Chekhov’s tale, but is still unable to deliver a version of The Cherry Orchard which is easy to sit through.

One of the biggest strengths of this particular production is that it manages to bring out the dark comedy inherent in Chekhov’s style, an aspect which is generally overlooked in favour of the broody, naturalistic feel of the author’s plays. Particularly good performances came from Tim McMullan (who was fantastic as Chandebise’s butler in A Flea in Her Ear) as Simyonov-Pishschik, a landowner desperately trying to postpone his own bankruptcy and James Laurenson as the over-talkative uncle Gaev. Further comic relief came from Kenneth Cranham, as the senile, hard-of-hearing ex-butler Firs. However, this adaptation still had plenty of more serious performances, such as Conleth Hill’s convincing portrayal of Lopakhin, the peasant-boy turned self-made millionaire trying desperately to save his friends from ruin. Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Ranyevskaya, the protagonist ex-emigre landowner whose family is crumbling under financial stress, has to deliver a far more sobering role, and does so well, but unfortunately falls just short of turning a good production into a great one.

This production of The Cherry Orchard cannot be faulted on any technical aspect. Indeed, the set is stunning, as befits the Olivier. It is a sheer pleasure to see how the different elements of the stage rearrange themselves to form in turn a reception area, an outdoor patio and a banquet hall, often in stunning stylised fashion. This is underpinned by impeccable lighting by Neil Austin, a lighting designer who never disappoints and even won an Olivier Award this year for his work on The White Guard, also at the National, amongst other accolades.

All in all, this production of The Cherry Orchard is probably one of the best Chekhov plays I have seen. Fundamentally however it is still a Chekhov, albeit a more bearable adaptation. From the start, it was always going to be a gargantuan challenge to make this admittedly well-performed but very, very wordy play maintain its energy throughout its full length, and conserve the audience’s full attention. At the end of the day, it boils down to this: if you are a fan of Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard is well worth seeing, but if you are not, you will find it hard to keep yourself engaged. 

The Cherry Orchard is also discussed in our first podcast.

The Cherry Orchard runs at the National Theatre until 28th July 2011. 
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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