Chekhov famously wrote The Cherry Orchard – the story of the inevitable decline of an aristocratic Russian family – as a comedy. He was horrified by its first production, directed by Stanislavsky as a tragedy. This tension in the nature of play has been grappled with by directors ever since; Purkiss and Dawson-Hunte – both the play’s translators and directors – seem to side with the playwright. Inspired by the earthy and guttural Russian productions that they saw on a year abroad, they set out to put on a production that was more than just “another period drama”.
They give us instead an immersive and vivid sensory experience, full of music, spectacle and absurdity – a mention of Paris ushers in a troupe of beret-clad, baguette wielding Frenchmen. This bold decision to present the play almost as a farce is an admirable risk but one to which they could have more fully committed. The dialogue is not quite snappy enough, the physical comedy is just a little too understated, and the communication with the audience is never completely assured. One of the final scenes, a delightfully ridiculous botched marriage proposal, almost descended into pantomime and yet worked beautifully. It was ludicrous and absurd and the moment, for me, when the play truly came alive.
What is frustrating is that the cast are clearly up to the challenge; expertly balancing both comedy and tragedy, both the likable and grotesque facets of Chekhov’s outlandish characters. To say that they avoid caricature to miss the point: this is undoubtedly what many of the characters are. (Katie-Rose Comery’s study in straight-laced severity as Varya and Howard Coase’s hopeless aristocrat Pishchik are particularly delicious). However, they are caricatures which are somehow still sympathetic and believable; still wonderfully, heartbreakingly human. The standout performance, though, is Fiona Johnston’s Lyubov, the helpless matriarch at the centre of the play. Johnston is simply outstanding. She plays a thoughtless aristocrat who spends most of the play hysterically laughing or crying (or both) and whose refusal to engage with the family’s plight ensures its downfall, and yet she radiates so much child-like warmth and love that the audience is charmed along with the rest of the characters.
The only weak links in this otherwise remarkable cast were Ben Dawes and Claudia King as the two young lovers. Dawes’s “eternal student” Trofimov seems to confuse idealistic passion with rage, rendering his self-righteous, political outbursts more grating than endearing. King’s Anya, though natural and convincing, fails to quite light up the stage in the way that the character demands. Consequently, the audience is left unsure of what either finds so enthralling in the other and the romance seems a little forced. However, these blemishes are perhaps only noticeable because the rest of the acting is of such high calibre.
On the whole, The Cherry Orchard is an impressive, professional production and well-worth seeing. I only wish that it had the confidence to fully realise its potentially fresh and exciting vision.
**** (4 Stars)