The Cherry Orchard – Olivier Theatre

Often Chekhov’s plays are seen as something of the time, period pieces that, while well crafted, can be difficult to relate to modern day. The Cherry Orchard, however, with its tale of financial problems, the challenge of facing up to debt and the consequences when that debt needs to be repaid, seems never more topical.

Much of this is down to Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s script, a vibrant work that may upset some purists but one that makes the oft told tale seem fresh and relevant. A sprinkling of ‘colourful’ language may raise a few eyebrows but it serves to show a family on the verge of collapse. Inclusion of lines such as ‘you whiffy crap artist’ and a liberal smattering of ‘bollocks’ and ‘bloodies’ may initially seem to jar but when one considers Chekhov intended Cherry Orchard to be contemporary, the modernity works.

Money has finally run out for Ranyevskaya and, unless she agrees to a radical plan to bring in some much needed income, her beloved estate will be sold at auction. Not wishing to face up to the harsh realities of the changing social atmosphere of early 20th Century Russia, she continues with her blinkered, extravagant – if fading – lifestyle.

Howard Davies’ ravishing production engages from the outset. Focusing on the human drama this is a raw and painfully real Cherry Orchard. No white linen suits, samovars or parasols here, just a raft of beautifully drawn characters trying to find their position in a rapidly changing Russia while desperately trying to cling onto past glamour.

Lopakhin’s seemingly callous plan to sell off the beloved Cherry Orchard and turn it into holiday home plots a reflection of events that were slowly overtaken the Russian gentry at the turn of the century.

Davies has assembled one of the strongest ensembles seen on the National stage for a long time. There is not one weak performance from the large cast. Among the highlights are Charity Wakefield and Claudie Blakley’s hauntingly believable lovelorn daughters, Anya and Varya; Kenneth Cranham’s long-suffering Firs, and Sarah Woodward’s eccentric Charlotta.

At the heart of the piece, however, are two devastating performances of real emotional power and understanding. Zoe Wanamaker makes Ranyevskaya utterly believable. She may be a woman unable to come to terms with her changing circumstances but wears her emotions on her sleeve, making her a figure we root for despite her inability to face reality. In a performance of immense detail every inflection and gesture is considered and painfully real.

In counterpoint, Conleth Hill’s Lopakhin may seem initially more emotionally restrained. An outsider and never fully accepted by the family but desperately in love with Varya, he struggles to feel a sense of belonging. By the third act, however, the emotions are on the surface and things will never be the same again. Hill’s performance balances Wanamaker’s perfectly as the face of new Russia overcoming old.

Framing the performances is a breathtaking design by Bunny Christie, lit with atmospheric flair by Neil Austin. Transforming from the faded glory of the Russian mansion into the vast vista of the river banks the design and lighting provide both the epic wide sweep while also allowing for the intimate to take centre stage.

The modernity of the script may ruffle a few feathers but this is truly a Cherry Orchard for the 21st Century. Chekhov might have an underserved reputation for lengthy, dark and depressing dramas but here his Cherry Orchard is shown as a classic record of a pivotal point in European and world history.

Photo: ZoeWanamaker and Conleth Hill in The Cherry Orchard. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

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