Writer: Anton Chekhov
Designer: Tom Piper
Director: Michael Boyd
Reviewer: Julia Beasley
What do you do when you’re broke? This is the question facing Luba, whose family estate (with its vast cherry orchard) is deep in debt and about to be auctioned off to a developer.
Unfortunately for the cherry orchard, Luba is a member of the liberal elite fallen on hard times. She’s beautiful, vivacious and clueless about money. She gives gold to beggars but can’t pay her own staff. How could she possibly save her beloved cherry orchard from the axe?
The scene is the shabby Russian country estate of the fictional Ranyevskaya family at the beginning of the twentieth century. Change is in the air, along with the scent of blossom. The serfs are revolting; the old moneyed classes are on the wane. A land grab is about to displace traditional class distinctions.
Chekov described his greatest and last play as a comedy. Trained as a doctor, he was unflinchingly honest as a playwright who poked fun at the absurdity of human behaviour. Fortunes rise and fall as a cast of lovely and weird characters attempt to cope with their own loves and losses. If you didn’t laugh so much about their folly, you might just cry.
The Old Vic’s production does this masterpiece of naturalistic theatre proud. The traditional proscenium stage is transformed into a theatre in the round by Tom Piper (he of the Tower of London ‘Poppies’ installation in 2014). A veritable miracle of seamless set design involves a wall of seating appearing inside the normal stage. See it and believe it!
The result is that the lovely Old Vic appears to be part of the old estate. Sunlight floods in. The characters are up close and personal. At times they revolve on a moving circular inner stage. In this beautifully choreographed production. life is shown as a series inconsequential interactions, personal mishaps, endless miscommunications and constant change.
The translation is fresh and modern; the cast tight, energetic and refreshingly diverse. Jude Owusu as the self-made entrepreneur and son of a former serf, is the perfect foil to Kirsty Bushell’s Luba. Every character has their own perfectly formed narrative and movement. Look out for the single woman’s (Eva Magyar) circus skills and the comic timing of the wrinkled retainer (Togo Igawa) and buffoon brother (Simon Coats).
While we only ever see a few bits of white blossom, the gorgeousness of the cherry orchard is ever present. It is a groaning, massive, organic and mystical force of nature, an irreplaceable beauty that is about to be butchered. Chekhov was an ecological writer. His message, so wonderfully stated in this production, is that human beings should be sceptical about progress: we cut down the trees at our peril.
Runs until 7 April 2018 | Image: Jon Rowley