Reviewing Oxford Theatre Guild’s performance of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it would be easy to simply focus on the engaging, committed actors, or the beautiful outdoor setting. Both these things were present, and both contributed significantly to a hugely enjoyable night out - and they are important to note upfront. However, this is July 2021, and no performance at this time escapes the wider context of Covid. What made this a particularly rewarding experience was the sense that I was getting to see The Cherry Orchard in a new light, and finding it far more relevant to the past year than I had expected.
I felt so keenly aware, right from the start, of the sense of awkwardness, frustration and claustrophobia that come with being cooped up at home with a difficult bunch of people, who may also be your official ‘nearest and dearest’. And as a result, I found myself with far more sympathy for the characters than might have been the case 18 months ago. Their very human failings now seemed very easy to relate to. Watching this performance, it was easy to picture a present-day Varya at the end of her tether with her shopaholic mum, or a modern Lopakhin full of business ideas and solutions but blind to their emotional resonance. Dunyasha would’ve spent lockdown with someone she had one not-very-successful Tinder date with, I’m sure, and I think many of us with senile relatives would feel Fiers is very familiar. Once, it would’ve been tempting to see them as all being rather silly and hopeless - but now they felt no different to any of us, especially when rattling around a house with various relatives, trying to navigate life, and not necessarily making good choices (but not being any better or worse as people for those choices). The same has been true for lockdown: forced to spend a lot of time with an irregular selection of people, I have come to be much more accepting of tricky dynamics and misguided thinking (including my own), because there’s a sense that life is richer for it.
I was afforded this opportunity for reflection because the actors so fully inhabited their parts. Rachel Pearson’s Ranevskya and Richard Readshaw’s Lopakhin were real highlights - with Pearson managing to get just the right hint of vulnerability in the mix, and Readshaw bringing tremendous energy. At this point, I think it’s also important to acknowledge the achievements of the cast in the light of two postponements (it was originally scheduled for spring 2020), and then only three weeks’ notice for this outdoor adaptation. Perhaps the upshot of this is the extra time to really get to know the characters, and get under their skin.
Despite the short notice, the set-up was very well thought through, with seating arranged to keep the audience in their ‘bubbles’, a QR code for interval bar orders, and a stunning backdrop of foliage. The set was simple but effective: a combination of real life birdsong and a small stage helped convey the feeling of the tranquil orchard and chaotic house.
For me, there was also a certain Englishness to everything that made the Russian references occasionally feel oddly incongruous. Something a little earnest and polite, perhaps, combined with the physical setting. However, this is not meant as a criticism - if anything it helped illustrate the contemporary nature of many of the play’s themes, and also gave me the feeling that this performance is to be enjoyed in the spirit of a lovely lawn party. And after more than a year of Covid restrictions, it’s a refreshing and stimulating party to attend. If you get the chance to see this perfectly English Orchard, I would recommend it.