“The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov

in a new version by Andrew Upton

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 3rd August 2011

The Cherry Orchard has always been seen as Chekhov’s most political play. Written during a time of limbo in Russia, when no one knew the shape of the future, it is a play which always feels extraordinarily apt during periods of change. Howard Davies’ imposing production at the National Theatre is perfect for our current climate, presenting on stage the dichotomy between new and old as whole strata of society shift unpredictably.

The indignation of some that Andrew Upton’s new version of the play is ‘too modern’ is mostly unfounded; Scene II of Act One does contain a few too many contemporary colloquialisms, but throughout the rest of the play the slight references to twenty-first century speech only serve to make the play easier to understand. This version focusses on setting apart the three main ‘voices’ Chekhov represents here.

Bunny Christie’s gorgeous whitewashed-wood set evokes a sense of beauty in decay, and the juxtaposition of an old structure with new telegraph poles serves to heighten the sense of estrangement the landed classes felt in Russia in the early 1900s. Neil Austin’s ambitious lighting shows time passing and Dominic Muldowney’s dulcit music reminds us we are never far away from tragedy.

Whenever Zoe Wanamaker is on stage she diverts attention to her, creating the same effect her alter-ego Ranyevskaya has when she walks into a room. Conleth Hill’s boisterous Lopakhin is presented with enough humanity to be empathetic, but when we listen to his words it’s difficult not to see him as the villain. Wanamaker and Hill represent the old and new money at odds with one another, and are given a running commentary by Mark Bonnar’s radical and ebullient Trofimov. These are the three voices, and the ones we are drawn to throughout. Charity Wakefield and Claudie Blakley show impressive range as the two daughters.

Davies manages to pin down the reason why this play can be seen as comic; the humour is found in the tension between the different social views. We find ourselves laughing not because we are told to, but because nervous energy compels us to. Then, in an instant, as the bags are packed and the door slammed, tragedy takes over and we realise the struggle to be heard is ongoing.

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