Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review The Cherry Orchard

A modern-dress version of Russian classic The Cherry Orchard sparks thoughts on revolution for Peter Barker as part of a provocative season at the Arcola Theatre.

The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov

This Land Is Your Land

Anton Chekhov’s final play The Cherry Orchard can be seen as an elegy for a lost world and for the British there may once have been a temptation to co-opt it into a post-imperial mindset. Or at least to look on the First World War as a watershed between the unpleasant now and the elegant past.

This 1977 adaptation of the play by playwright Trevor Griffiths, from a translation by Helen Rappaport, resolutely sets itself against a post-imperial reading; but it’s certainly post-something.

First produced at the Nottingham Playhouse, this is now the first time Griffiths’ adaptation has reached a London stage. However, this version did have an outing on television in 1981 in a technically groundbreaking BBC production.

Griffiths maintained he wanted his English version to revolutionize a play "seriously betrayed, almost consciously betrayed, over some 50 years  ...  The English still cling wilfully to the idea that the play is an elegy for the decline of civilization."

So now the Arcola Theatre's artistic director, Mehmet Ergen, who also directs, has positioned Chekhov's final play as the last in a season of plays looking at revolution -- Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths and the New Nigerians by Oladipo Agboluaje making up a trio.

Chekhov in 1904 is no revolutionary although, like many others at the time, he sensed change was coming in his Russia and an overthrow of the old order. But there is no act of violence dispossessing  the Ranevsky household of its renowned cherry orchard and other property. An off-stage property deal shunts them into the sidings.

A successful practitioner of a later revolution Mao Zedong, albeit responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, famously said: “革命不是一个请客吃饭  The revolution is not a dinner party.” But in Chekhov’s hands the social revolution does feel like a dinner party with a covert seismic shift, emphasized in this modern dress production.

The cherry orchard is part of Madame Ranevsky's debt-ridden estate. on the verge of being auctioned off when, further stripped of her wealth by a treacherous lover, she's rescued from Paris.

We follow her emotional and economic journey and  Sian Thomas's Madame Ranevsky, as she slides from the imperious to the disorientated, still manages to keep our sympathy for this deeply flawed character.

Indeed, her powerful  verbal disembowelment of the eternal student Trofimov (an eloquent and convincing Abhin Galeya) makes her grow in stature in our eyes, without ever becoming a frightening monster.  

The household of decay also includes Jack Klaff’s charmingly eccentric but feckless Gayev, her brother, who is even less capable of leading a responsible life than Madame Ranevsky.

Set against the old order is the upwardly mobile entrepreneur Lophakin, Jude Akuwudike, the son of a freed serf who inevitably brings down his old patron as he climbs up.

He dances in joy tinged with bewilderment as fortunes change in his favour. His vision of the cherry orchard hanging with bodies of the dead from the past has a gruesome reality in hindsight, although in 1904 it is not yet revolution, just a changing of the guard. 

Along with the eternal student, there is the eternal serf Firs, who views his class's emancipation as a disaster, captured in Robin Hooper’s doddering performance with his eye set on a past which is more certain because it is history.

Jade Williams gives a restrained but suitably self-denying performance as Varya, Ranevsky's adopted daughter. Equally, Simon Scardifield does a comic turn with glorious timing as the clumsy clerk Yepikhodov. But all are scooped up in unwelcome change.

Yet others look like emerging intact. Jim Bywaters' wonderfully gritty and humorous landowning neighbour Pischick still looks like a winner. And we can guess that Lily Wood’s sexy and thoroughly convincing ingénue Dunyasha will also be on the rise, perhaps alongside Ryan Wichert’s confident manservant Yasha.

Iona McLeish’s spare white set dominated by an unfeasibly tall bookcase is highly adaptable, aided by David Howe's lighting and sound by Neil McKeown, which draw us into the world of ghosts and dreams that is the cherry orchard.

But it is to the future, pregnant with danger and uncertainty, that Ergen would like to direct us. If at one point, Pischick does say, “Something will happen, you see; if not today, then tomorrow.”, it feels like an inclusive moment for all of us.

Change is afoot. Chekhov never saw later revolutions, when a class of people overthrew another by an act of violence. We are now post-imperial, post-Cold War, post-Brexit, post-Trump election and  this thought-provoking  amber/green light production  may well point us towards a post-dinner party world.

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