james debate
james debate

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Directed by Howard Davies
Written by Anton Chekhov (Original), Andrew Upton
Starring Zoë Wanamaker, Conleth Hill, Kenneth Cranham
Theatre National Theatre, Olivier

cherry orchard national theatre anton chekhov

I will begin by saying that Anton Chekhov is one of my favourite playwrights, possibly the favourite, while the Cherry Orchard is one of his most revered plays, considered by many to be his best.

Set at a time of social upheaval, characterised by the rise of the middle class and the fall of the nobility, the Cherry Orchard follows a formerly wealthy family that has been ravaged by debt, as they return home to the family estate to be present as it is auctioned off to pay the mortgage.

Just as the landed gentry at the time were cost by their refusal to face up to the changing times, so does this family ignore all warnings in order to perpetuate the fantasy of permanent status. But the march of "progress" proved to be unstoppable, as presaged here in Chekhov's visionary work.

It’s always a risk when you take such a play that has been done, and done well, in the past and attempt to refresh the script. So it’s no surprise that reaction so far has been mixed at best, with newcomers generally pleased with the production while old fans are grated by the intrusion of modern slang and inconsistent anachronisms.

However, despite my fondness for Chekhov’s original work, I did not find myself particularly bothered by Upton’s liberty taking with the language. The central themes and the underlying historical context all remain intact, ensconced in the kind of rich character drama that only Chekhov can do so well.

For me, the biggest problem with this production comes from a strange lack of heart. One could argue that it is the director’s intention to cast a cruel and unfeeling light on proceedings; it would even be a fitting reflection of the homogenisation of modernity, the inevitability of which casts a pall upon the characters in this play. Ultimately something feels lost in translation as the fantasy of the old world mentality, epitomised by the luxuriant hubris of land owner Ranyevskaya, fails to contrast effectively with the relentless advent of societal change. In a play where the ties of family and tradition are overwhelmed by the changing times, I found myself oddly unmoved.

The play also contains an uneasy marriage between the naturalism that typifies the work of Chekhov, and symbolism that is part and parcel when it comes to a politically intentioned play such as this. Often this works to good effect, with the complex and often unspoken dynamics between characters mirroring the underlying analogies. However other times it comes off as quite jarring, as with perennial student Tofimov and his penchant for meandering monologues making a stark contrast with the otherwise understated and natural style of dialogue.

Aside from these potential criticisms, however, there is much to enjoy with this production. The acting is generally excellent; Zoë Wanamaker shines in the starring role of Ranyevskaya, while Conleth Hill nearly steals the show as the exasperated businessman Lopakhin. Credit must also go to James Laurenson's tragically layered turn as Gaev and Tim McMullan as loveable moocher Simyonov-Pischik, but above all to the venerable Kenneth Cranham for his effortlessly masterful rendition of the senile Firs.

In addition the stagecraft is fantastic, the set makes good use of the Olivier space, and it's level of detail is a thing of beauty. It is even more impressive as it effortlessly transitions from one seen to the next. The lighting is also pitch perfect and atmospheric, giving a real sense of place and time, while the sound-work also displays a keen attention to natural detail in classic Stanislavskian traditions.

In the end this is a technically adept production which never quite achieves the sum of its fine components. This reworked version of the Cherry Orchard serves as a clear reminder that even when the acting and production is done right, it still takes something extra to really capture the soul of a play, an intangible quality that this production unfortunately lacks.

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