Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Last week it was time to meet again the tortured and torturing inhabitants of Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD showing up again at the National's Olivier Theatre, ten years after Trevor Nunn's production starring Vanessa Redgrave.

The production reunites the team behind last year's re-discovery of Gorky's THE WHITE GUARD, director Howard Davies, adapter Andrew Upton, designer Bunny Christie, lighting designer Neil Austin and actor Conleth Hill. The production certainly has it's merits but for once Howard Davies' signature painstaking thoroughness doesn't quite suit this play.

Andrew Upton's version keeps poking you in the ribs with clunking modern terms - it certainly was a surprise for Lopakhin to blurt out "Oh bollocks" - but he didn't seem to bring much by way of insight.I have seen THE CHERRY ORCHARD a few times although it's not my favourite of Chekhov's handful of classic plays. All the components are there and there are certainly a remarkable number of roles for actors to get their teeth into, but somehow it doesn't quite engage me fully - although it features enough great Chekhov moments to make one seek it out again.

For me the problem is the dreaded second act when after a number of expositional conversations between characters, the act comes to a juddering halt when Trofimov, the eternal student, rails at the family and hangers on of Madame Ranyevskaya for their indolence and willful ignorance of the lives of the lower classes. It just goes on and on and on. And on.It's a production that probably would have worked better in the Lyttleton - there seemed to be an awful lot of stage to cover for the cast getting around Bunny Christie's faded dacha and this expanse of stage rather dissipated the tension that should grow during the third act party which culminates in Lopakhin's drunken appearance to announce to the stunned Ranveyskaya that he now owns her beloved Cherry Orchard. However despite these mis-steps, the great moments of the show worked their magic.

Most of these involved the heartbreaking character of Varya - in a lovely performance by Claudie Blakely - Ranyevskaya's older, practical daughter who has run the family home while it's fortunes have dwindled to zero and who has a wary but quiet affection for the equally shy Lopakhin. The painful fourth act scene when these two potential lovers attempt to voice their true feelings under the guise of small talk only to let the moment vanish for ever was profoundly moving. Their were fine supporting performances from Sarah Woodward as Charlotta - of the family, but not one of it - whose loss of security and home makes her one of Chekhov's most haunting figures, Kenneth Cranham's decrepit, tragic Firs, Tim McMullan's cadging friend of the family Simyonov-Pishchik and James Laurenson's permanently bewildered Gaev.

Conleth Hill and Zoe Wanamaker were both potentially exciting choices for Lopakhin and Ranyevskaya and while they both gave interesting performances neither banished memories of Roger Allam and Vanessa Redgrave in the 2001 production. In particular Zoe Wanamaker, so adept at playing clear-eyed, practical characters, seemed at times an odd fit for Ranyevskaya who simply refuses to see the woods for her cherry trees.

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