Writer: Anton Chekov
Translator and Adapter: Rory Mullarkey
Director: Michael Boyd
Reviewer: Jay Nutall
Anton Chekov was, perhaps, the master of writing about the dysfunctional family and many theatre scholars believe that The Cherry Orchard, written in 1904, was his greatest play. This confident and assured production, co-produced with Bristol Old Vic and directed by the former artistic director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd, arrives at The Royal Exchange in Manchester after already playing in Bristol.
Returning home to her wealthy estate in Russia after several years away in Paris, LyubovAndreyenevna Ranyesskaya (Kirsty Bushell) and her eccentric aristocratic family face the loss of everything they once possessed – status, wealth, land, property and their beloved cherry orchard. Written at a time of huge socio-economic change in Russia the freedom of the serfs means that Yermolai Alekseyevich Lopakhim (Jude Owusu), a former serf at the estate, is now a wealthy man and can afford to usurp the precedent and buy his former slave land for himself.
It is fair to say that, in terms of plot, The Cherry Orchard is a play in which not a great deal happens. The symbolism of the past, present and future are laid bare by Chekov in much of the writing: the characters become almost caricature as several of them fight to let go of the past and embrace a ‘new’ future; and the offstage sound effects of axe on cherry tree wood is as deafening as the offstage slamming door stage direction at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and, as such, any company staging this complex play must decide where the play sits – a tragedy or comedy; naturalism or symbolism.
Director Michael Boyd commissioned Russian speaking playwright Rory Mullarkey to write a fresh and immediate version of the play. Mullarkey has delivered a text full of eccentricity, philosophising and non-sequiturs that allows the play to fizz and yet keep and unhurried and indulgent framework. Characters occasionally lapse into monologue, the fourth wall slowly dissolving as they address the audience directly, only to be hauled back by another character interjecting with a quip or direct put down like “Go away, you’re boring me”. It is this fine balance between intellectualism, tragedy and wit that Boyd and Mullarkey have engineered to make this production sparkle.
With tragedy at its very heart, with the reported drowning of Lyubov’s young son, Grisha, several years earlier, Boyd hammers home not only what she is losing but what she has lost. A young boy actor, ghost-like, bookends the acts of the play, at one point performing a scene change single-handedly and another appearing dripping wet. The many characters onstage are a whisker away from total desperation, breakdown and heartbreak, none more so than Bushell’s Lyubov, at the sight of her dead son. “I can’t sit still!” she declares child-like, “I’m so happy!” Bushell is outstanding in the role of a mother and governess keeping a thinly veiled guise over her grief for her former life. But, of course, what Chekov’s characters often a lie and crucially, what they don’t say resonates more than their verbal diarrhoea. Boyd directs with pinpoint suspension like elastic being pulled between characters onstage, stretched until the point it may snap any moment.
This is an incredibly rich and complex production. The ensemble of characters and their intricate web between family, maids, former serfs and shifting class divides make it difficult to encapsulate the play and, by its nature, makes it a hard play to convey. This accessible and highly intelligent production allows all of Chekov’s ruminations as well as incorporating the wit of what he described as a comedy. At the centre of the play, as apt now as when it was first performed, is the terrifying idea of change and the old making way for the new.
Runs until 19 May 2018 | Image: Contributed