Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard from 1903, his last play, shows us a family on the edge of ruin on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Landowner Ranevskaya has overspent her income while on an extended sojourn in Paris, so that as she arrives home at last, the family estate and its well-known cherry orchard are about to be auctioned off to pay their debts and raise some ready cash.
Four Seven Two Productions sets the action (such as it is, since this is something of a threnody, with the fateful act of sale occurring strictly off-stage) before set designer Niamh Calway's picturesque backcloth, that near the end of the drama changes symbolically, of the blossoming orchard in its springtime glory. The estate's owning family plus retainers, would-be buyers and dependents come and go in the run-up to the sale and then in its aftermath.
The publicity blurb tells us that director Ross Moncrieff "re-imagines the play in prohibition-era 1920s America... on the cusp of great political change... new significance in the Jazz Age". Well maybe, and despite Moncrieff's kindly outlining in person his artistic vision to me, I struggled to make the desired visual connection. To be sure, the serf-made-good Lopakhin looked dapper in his Al Capone suit and Bing Crosby two-tone shoes, and a smart 6-piece jazz band bopped away intermittently up in the gallery, but it's a bit of stretch from there to the silver birch woods and black earth of Mother Russia, and I felt we lacked milestones along the path of our trans-continental journey. The result was that the taking the play into another era and country seemed to me almost rather more of a distraction than a felicitous shedding of new light on its themes and symbols.
Like Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, this is tragi-comedy, a notoriously difficult genre successfully to bring off, and in this production I had a slight feeling of being caught in a no man's land between almost gloomy seriousness and light comedy, the latter mainly supplied by the frivolous older brother Gayev and by the governess Charlotte (Conky Kampfner, very good). On the other hand, Moncrieff does convey the strong sense of inevitability running through the conflict between the necessity for change and nostalgia for the past. There's also clear contrast of opportunity as outlined in their differing prescriptions (though both characters are firmly orientated towards the future) by the entrepreneurial, materialistic Lopakhin on the one hand and on the other the perpetual student Trofimov who idealizes the notion of work and emphasizes the primacy of truth over love and beauty.
In this staging, I tended to miss the sense that the players were forming a cohesive ensemble as they sometimes wandered anonymously onstage and stood about the somewhat anodyne set, neither detailed nor schematic, and then would disappear, all but crushed by the weight of recollection of happier times and past glories. It occurred to me that newcomers to the play would have been wishing for a bit more assistance in character and even social class identification through more clearly differentiated costume and accent – the latter were uniformly American of varying authenticity.
In the pivotal role of Ranevskaya, Tara Kilcoyne portrayed the fidgety irresponsibility of the woman, though I missed insight into her emotional intelligence, and specifically why she is prepared to choose a new romantic love over financial prudence. She was, though, touching as she wailed; 'Without the cherry orchard, I can't make sense of my life.' As Lopakhin, Jon Berry, whom I know to be an accomplished actor, appeared a little ill at ease early on, but came on more strongly after the interval as he turns proposals into action, thereby managing to break free of his peasant heritage. Alma Prelec was a plain-speaking adopted daughter Varya, and Lee Simmonds as old man Firs (though strangely dark-haired) rang down the curtain sympathetically on the ghosts that remained at the estate.
It must be said that two actors, in particular, caught the eye. Christopher Page, an excellent Hotspur in Henry IV pt. 1 back in May, quite brutally introduced indignation and anger into the rather effete proceedings, announcing: 'We have to stop admiring ourselves. We have simply to work!' and his drive stood out. I also enjoyed the skilful acting of Lara Deering as the daughter Anya. Though occasionally a little subdued in voice, she inhabited the role like a glove, fluently expressive in movement. The scene on the garden bench between Messrs Page and Deering, though brief, shone brightly.
Four Seven Two have made a decent stab at difficult material, and audiences later in the week are likely to encounter higher energy levels and ease of movement as the production beds in.