February 28, 2013
The Cherry Orchard is a play about change. The owner of the Cherry Orchard estate, the fey, irresponsible Madame Ranevskya (Fiona Johnston, pleasingly histrionic), in order to stave off bankruptcy, finds that only the sale of her cherished and famous cherry orchard will save her. This being Chekhov, the action that most appeals to this moribund family is inaction.
Ranevskaya’s demanding entourage includes her feckless brother (a dotty Will Law) whose idea of action is to deliver a eulogy to a bookcase, her half-educated daughter Anya, and a zany German governess (Sonia Jacobson, all in white) brought up in a circus. The ex-serf Lopakhin, nicely en route to becoming a millionaire (Patrick Edmond in natty yellow shoes in the play’s most difficult part; suitably hesitant at first and then increasingly confident as his little plan matures, though he perhaps overdoes the farcical element so that I didn’t really believe in his business acumen), suggests Ranevskya’ sole recourse is to flog her orchard, symbol of old money and the ailing class that owns it.
Can Ranevskya’s failure be called tragic? Hardly, since she connives too enthusiastically in her own fall. To balance the serious themes of enforced change, personal failure and ambition, Chekhov introduces, as often, a leavening of comedy that borders on farce. Tragi-comedy is never an easy thing to bring off but the directors Melissa Purkiss and Aurora Dawson-Hunte (who have also translated the play into fresh but never anachronistic English, a noble effort) give it a good go what with some song and dance and even a conjuring trick or two. Vocal variety comes mostly in the form of the angry young man Trofimov, though he quickly becomes tedious, with Ben Dawes mistaking shouting for anger.
At curtain up we face a wide stage backed by shelving full of the bric-a-brac of a big, old house. Fine, but the directors have advanced this backdrop so that while there’s plenty of lateral space there’s no depth, and the players more or less have to crab sideways or stand in a row – not ideal in a play concerned with inaction. A notable feature is the lighting design, and I was particularly taken by the acting of Eugene Hind as a smooth manservant Yasha; only a small part, but Mr Hind gives notice he may be the most talented player on stage.
PS. My campaign for student companies to provide audiences with a cast and crew list goes on. Sometimes, as here – though at least there’s a colourful flier that comes with the tickets - it feels like banging your head against a silver samovar.