A review of The Cherry Orchard at the Olivier Theatre (National Theatre) starring Zoe Wanamaker and Conleth Hill

Zoe Wanamaker in The Cherry Orchard

Zoe Wanamaker in The Cherry Orchard

It was the great theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, who when asked which of Anton Chekhov’s quartet of masterpieces he liked best, answered, ‘the last one I saw.’ I know exactly what he meant. The last one I saw, just days ago, was The Cherry Orchard which time cannot wither nor custom style its infinite variety – even in a new version by Australian Andrew Upton better suited to the Ozzie outback than the Russian countryside.

Though ‘nudged’ (according to a programme note) from the play’s 1904 setting to 1905, the year in which the Bloody Sunday massacre outside the Winter Palace would began to sow the seeds of the 1917 Revolution, Upton anachronistically coarsens his adaptation to nearer our own time with expressions such as ‘you whiffy crap artist’, ‘bloody hell’, ‘listen up’, ‘oh bollocks!’ and ‘I’ve told you a thousand frigging bloody, frigging times’ – uttered in exasperation by the peasant-turnedcapitalistic landowner Lopahin as he vents his frustration on the cherry orchard’s near bankrupt owner, Madame Ranevskaya, who stubbornly refuses to take his advice and sell the estate to pay off her gargantuan debts.

The result of this coarsening of the text while adding a discombobulating comic tone to the proceedings – which, it could be argued, is in keeping with Chekhov’s insistence that his play is a comedy – nevertheless undermines the heart-breaking, elegaic quality that is so essential to any great Chekhov production.

The scene towards the very end of the play, in which Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya hopes Lopahan will propose to her, should break your heart, but it doesn’t; nor does the play’s final moments, when the old retainer Firs is inadvertently left to die alone in the abandoned house as Ranevskaya and her family finally leave the estate for the last time.

Yet, while director Howard Davies and Upton seem deliberately to have desentimentalised this great text, the production nevertheless thrives on a cluster of beautifully observed performances. Zoe Wanamaker is absolutely splendid as the feckless Ranevskaya, who, though the architect of her own financial downfall, and still harbouring guilt for her drowned, ten year-old son, is a loving mother to her daughters Anya and Varya, and a caring sister to her useless but endearing brother Gaev (James Laurenson excellent).

Conleth Hill is superb as the caring, but frustrated landowner whose love and concern for Ranevskaya and her doomed brood is wonderfully conveyed in his contradictory mood swings.

There’s fine work, too, from Charity Wakefied and Claudie Blakley as Anya and Varya, from Mark Bonnar as the eternal student Trofimov, and Kenneth Cranham as the ageing butler Firs. I couldn’t quite work out the architecture of Bunny Christie’s crumbling wooden set – whose windows remained frosted in the height of summer. Nor did I feel it imparted any sense of the beauty that made the cherry orchard so speacial to Ranevskaya and her family.

Still, it’s an imperishable play and a good start to the National’s £12 Travelex season.

CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London magazine.

LINKS

Book tickets to The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre