The turn of the 20th Century was a time of profound change in Russia. The old world of the aristocratic society ruling over serfs came to an end. Privilege and wealth gave way to educated, young entrepreneurs. It is this world of change that Anton Chekhov uses as the backdrop for his brilliant play, The Cherry Orchard. This play is my favourite of his works, beautifully blending humour and pathos. I studied it in university on Twentieth Century Literature module, and immediately fell in love with Chekhov’s wonderful characters. Originally performed at the Bristol Old Vic, it is currently visiting Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
The play tells of Madam Ranyevskaya’s return to her aristocratic home, heavily burdened with debt, yet with a frivolous lifestyle which may prove her downfall. The cherry orchard attached to the property is where her young son tragically died by drowning in the river. Naturally, she is loathed to sell the land and lose the memories attached with it. Having no money to pay off the surmounting debts, nor the interest, the cherry orchard must go to auction. Lopakhin, the young son of one of the family’s serfs, tries to rescue both the orchard and Madam Ranyevskaya from her self-destructive nature.
The Cherry Orchard is a play that is perfectly suited to be performed in the Royal Exchange’s round theatre. I initially had concerns as to how such a large cast of characters would fit onto the stage, whilst maintaining fluidity and smooth transitions of the play’s scenes. But with a minimalist set and props, this allows the audience’s focus to be entirely on Chekhov’s wonderful characters and the phenomenal performances of all the actors playing them. And what performances they are! There isn’t a weak performance across any of the cast. Kirsty Bushell is electric as Madam Ranyevskaya. She steals the show, proving equally capable of portraying her character’s entertaining frivolous nature in addition to her more emotionally fragile side. Some of Bushell’s scenes, reminiscing the death of her son, were gut-wrenchingly sad. In my opinion, Bushell is even better than Judy Dench was in Richard Eyre’s 1981 film production.
The other performances by the rest of the cast are also exceptional and credit needs to given to the casting department for perfectly matching Chekhov’s characters. I loved the subtly subversive casting of black actors into the educated characters, ascending up the social ladder. Although it would cause Quentin Letts nightmares, I thought this added depth to the characters. This was particularly evident with Jude Owusu‘s wonderful characterisation of Lopakhin, the man who has risen through the ranks. Once the son of a serf, he has ascended to be commercially prosperous. Having a black actor play this role adds weight to many of his lines. Owusu is certainly a talented performer, who I will look out for in the future.
“I’ve bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed inside the kitchen. I must be dreaming. I must be imagining it all. It can’t be true“
The Cherry Orchard is a beautiful balance between humour and pathos. This production captures this balance perfectly. Humour is provided in abundance with larger than life characters like the scrounging Pischik and the eccentric Gayev being brilliantly rendered. Gayev’s absurd billiards references and his monologue serenading the bookcase are brilliantly funny. The play has its fair share of slapstick comedy too, particularly when it comes to the hilarious Yepikhodov. Christened “captain catastrophe”, this character is a walking disaster, albeit with squeaky shoes. Jack Monaghan captures his bumbling character perfectly.
The play also has touching moments of sadness. Madam Ranyevskaya’s dead son is hauntingly ever-present throughout the play. This is where this production triumphs. Grisha hauntingly walks across the stage throughout the play. In one scene, he carries a white balloon, visually signifying the moon, and leaves wet footprints behind. It is a haunting image that stayed with me long after the play had ended.
I recommend that people catch this wonderful play whilst it is on at the Royal Exchange. For anyone who has the preconception that Chekhov is boring, this will prove you wrong. I love The Cherry Orchard and this production did Chekhov’s work justice. It will make you laugh and it will break your heart.