This production deserves great credit for setting its face against traditional approaches. There is a lot to be said for stripping off the varnish from the birch-wood and starting again. However, this particular reading is not wholly successful and raises as many issues of interpretation as it resolves.
The question of how far to take Chekhov’s mature plays out of a traditional period style is an old one for directors and producers, but still one that admits of no easy, ready-made answers. In 2016, both at Chichester and at the National, we saw Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull in mostly naturalistic period presentations, and rightly so, because the main purpose was to trace Chekhov’s development as a playwright from the often baggy rhetoric of his beginnings through to the delicate balance of his mature style. But there is no need for that restraint with a single production of The Cherry Orchard.
Something new has to be found, as director Phil Willmott argues, in the same way that you need to find some fresh way of interpreting a Brahms or Beethoven Symphony to justify a further performance in a world of famous recordings. Willmott’s bold choice is to relocate the play to the revolutionary year of 1917. This involves quite a degree of adjustment and rewriting, and the success or otherwise of this production in large measure revolves around how convincing these changes are considered to be.
There are undoubtedly some very helpful clarifications of character which enable the talented cast to make full sense of their motivations in a series of exquisitely detailed performances. This is wholly to be welcomed.
One example, which must stand for the rest, is the inclusion of a small child, seen only by Ranyevskaya herself, to represent the son who had drowned tragically five years before. Instead of presenting her as a purely feckless and soft-hearted person, she becomes in this interpretation someone who has never got over this loss, compared to which money worries cease to register. She is not disconnected from the real world (she has after all run a villa in Menton, and cared for her lover over a long period) but has lost her belief in it. Out of this insight Suanne Braun is able to create a very moving portrait of a warm-hearted woman who has lost her moorings long ago.
Elsewhere the re-workings are less successful. Turning Trofimov into a student Bolshevik revolutionary, with Anya similarly enthused by the words of Comrade Lenin, is just about plausible; and when Trofimov and the servants appear with rifles to take over the estate on the day of the auction it makes a fine tableau, like a Russian Futurist poster. But the losses ultimately outweigh the gains at several points.
The relationship between Trofimov and Anya, the central romantic connection of the play, is thinned out and politicised in a way that leaves the actors without much material to work with, and it is hard to imagine that later sections of the play, how Ranyevskaya’s departure for Paris, funded by the super-rich off-stage Countess, could actually have happened as late as October 1917.
If the stated aim is to shed light on the Russia of today, then Chekhov, with all his studied ambiguity, is really the wrong vehicle. If you want to understand the operation of Putin’s kleptocracy, the cynical use of political assassination at home and abroad, and the deliberate and brazen presentation of black as white, then a more suitable work would be Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which Complicité attempted a few years back.
This play needs instead an ambience of resonant but underdetermined symbolism – the strange noise which everyone hears but all interpret differently, should be left open to interpretation. The intruders at the door to be bought off with gold need not be narrowed down to a rising proletariat. Specificity in many plays increases dramatic tension, but here it only diminishes it. The Russia Chekhov inhabits is one of a spectrum of alarming possibilities, not clear political certainties.
This is not to say that class tensions are unimportant to Chekhov – they clearly are so. But they do not work in obvious ways. It would be too easy for the down-trodden clerk Yephikhodov to take out his resentments on his employers: instead he lashes out at Varya, herself another kind of victim of the system. In this short scene, Chekhov shows a deep understanding of how such animosities ironically work their way out into conflicts between individuals who should be natural allies, which is ultimately more interesting dramatically than an overtly and narrowly political narrative.
The strength of this production lies with its actors who take full advantage of all that Chekhov gives them. There is a freighted balance of possibilities in all these roles that is delightfully captured in this production. There are plenty of speeches expressing a longing for freedom, which you know from the way they are delivered will never be carried through.
You see several characters carefully contemplate taking the common sense approach to their problems when knowing that love will derail them instead; while others are radiantly articulate about their inability to find articulacy and emotional honesty when it really matters.
These are the familiar virtues of good acting in Chekhov but that does not mean you often see them on the London stage. The actors tread a delicious and dangerous edge of potential choice before falling into outcomes that in hindsight, thanks to their careful detail, seem predetermined.
Beyond the precise tragedy of Ranyevskaya’s portrayal, Richard Gibson’s depiction of her brother, Gaev, is especially well done, capturing the wan poignancy of self-admitted failure as well as his comic value. Feliks Mathur and Lucy Menzies both look the part and have the radiant optimism needed for Trofimov and Anya, but this version denies them a lot of inner substance.
On the other hand Lakesha Cammock, gives a wonderfully substantive, no-nonsense portrayal of the much put-upon Varya, which makes the final failed proposal scene all the more affecting – as it should be.
In some ways the most difficult role to bring off is that of Lopakhin, traditionally the voice of future capitalism and social mobility, but also the embodiment of emotional inarticulacy, both in thrall to and appalled by the aristocracy he will displace. This production puts him into something of a dramatic limbo by its close, but Christopher Laishley does a mostly fine job in voicing the arguments for change and against inertia, which must seem convincing on some level if this play is to retain its bite.
There are some delightful character roles: Caroline Wildi does a lot with the feisty, if grasping, former ballerina, Madame Pishchika, and Emma Manton finds humour and presence in the daffy German governess, Charlotta.
The below-stairs roles are all well taken and interact effectively, with Alex Huetson in particular finding ambition, desperation and unintended humour within the character of the Malvolio-like clerk whom everyone else patronises or dismisses. It is a shame that the character of old Fiers is nearly written out of this production: we miss his presence at the very end where Chekhov had powerful points to make.
The set, by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, is similar in design to their fine evocation of Heartbreak House, and captures the crumbling elegance of the mansion most economically. However, the movement across and within the design has its uneasy moments: Too little use is made of the foreground, especially in the second half, and at particularly busy moments in the action the central doorway seemed to create a degree of bunching and congestion that limited the expressive range of the acting a little.
This production deserves great credit for setting its face against traditional approaches. There is a lot to be said for stripping off the varnish from the birch-wood and starting again. However, this particular reading is not wholly successful and raises as many issues of interpretation as it resolves. Its great strengths lie in the refinement of the acting.
At times the pace could have been faster. Chekhov’s curious remark that the play is a ‘farce’ needs to be taken seriously, at least so far as tempo is concerned, and perhaps the key to future productions lies in probing further what that deliberately enigmatic remark might mean in the modern world.