Writer: Anton Chekhov
Adapted by and Director: Phil Willmott
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
As international political relations with Russia crumble under the weight of fake news, accusations of democratic tampering and nerve-agent poisoning, and as our tentative spring is once again interrupted by Siberia-like snows, the Union Theatre’s revival of The Cherry Orchard is a reminder of some of Russia’s more enjoyable gifts to the world. The work of Anton Chekhov bears endless repetition, as audiences search for new meaning in his tales of aristocratic decline and the encroaching urbanisation of rural Russia.
Ranyevskaya and her brother Gaev return to their childhood home one last time, desperate to find the money to save the estate and the beautiful cherry orchard from going to auction. Risen from his working-class roots, neighbour Lopakhin offers them the chance to save the house if they sacrifice the orchard to build villas for the rising middle classes. But Ranyevskaya refuses to commit and as the auction approaches her daughter Anya is drawn into the sphere of the revolutionary Peter Trofimov who heralds a radical change for all involved.
Phil Willmott’s truncated production relocates the action to 1917 at the very moment that the Tsar is removed from power and a new world order begins to form. It sets the tone nicely for Chekhov’s concerns with the end of nobility and the politicisation of youth while offering an easy access point for UK audiences less familiar with the revolutionary murmurings before that momentous year.
Although this political turmoil is referenced in the more lingering pace of the first half, which focuses on Chekhov’s characterisation, establishing the play’s core themes about the effects of poverty, class, memory and the ghostly return of the past, it is only in the second half that the full revolutionary fervour enters the house in physical form and begins to actively affect the lives of the inhabitants.
Yet, at only 90 minutes, this second half makes too hasty work of the rapid transition from past to future. The audience is given time to dwell on Ranyevskaya wistful memories of the past and the consequences of Lopakhin’s elevation to landowning businessman that subtly suggest a nation awakening to the idea of social mobility, but less space is given to Trofimov and Anya’s radicalisation so the play concludes with little time to understand why and how “the people” could intervene without opposition. Willmott’s quick-fire adaptation begins with reverence, but this change to Chekhov’s intention to fit the 1917 theme feels sudden and lacking in dramatic credibility, without sufficient explanation as to why aristocratic land would be seized while the “parasites” were allowed to go free.
As Ranyevskaya, Suanne Braun has a lovely stillness as this tragic character who brings about her own ruin through over-generosity and poor decision-making. Her terrible management of money runs parallel with her poor romantic decisions, as she lends rubles to equally desperate friends with the same openness that she responds to the lover who treated her badly. But with Ranyevskaya’s inconsolable at the death of her son some years before, Braun adds genuine depth to these moments, a portrait of a woman permanently haunted by her past and unable or unwilling to ever escape it.
Richard Gibson’s Gaev is equally well drawn, a talkative but kindly brother and uncle who exhibits a deep disdain for Lopakhin for his lowly relations, who is broken by his failure to repair the family finances. Christopher Laishley as Lopakhin is suitably enraged by the fey indifference of the family to his business propositions, revelling in his chance to force their respect, while Feliks Mathur’s Trofimov is commanding and impassioned despite relatively little substance to work with.
The surrounding cast is less well-served by the short adaptation and while Molly Crooks Dunyasha and Lakesha Cammock’s Varya give a flavour of women’s limited opportunity in the country, on the whole, the servant roles add little to the overall purpose other than slightly overplayed comic relief. And underselling the radicalisation aspect means Lucy Menzies’ Anya is too simpering, too wholesomely sweet to convince as a sudden revolutionary, certainly an unlikely match for the fiery Trofimov.
Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set is almost superfluous to the Union Theatre’s focuses on the central characters, and it is in their layered interaction particularly in the first two-thirds of the play, that this interpretation is most successful. This adaptation of The Cherry Orchard creates a foreboding tone of a world coming to an end but doesn’t quite offer enough substance to believe that a new Russia is dawning.
Runs until 7 april 2018 | Image: Contributed