Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is currently in production at the Oliver Theatre, in a new version by Andrew Upton.
Zoe Wannamaker stars as a very childlike Ranyevskaya, a woman who is unable to stand up to the future and the changes it holds. Her refusal to leave the past behind is the reason why the cherry orchard of the play’s title will be demolished, and the family will have to leave their country estate and family home. At times I felt that I could have given her a good shake, so well does she inhabit the girl clinging to the past. She refuses to heed Lopakhin and continues to represent a time that is passing. Conleth Hill’s merchant, Lopakhin anticipates the oligarchy that arose after the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of the free market. He never ceases to remind the audience that he was born to a serf and has achieved success and a fortune in his own lifetime. Mark Bonnar’s Trofimov is the idealist scholar, the philosopher and forerunner of the communists that will later rule Russia. Howard Davies, the director of this production, brings out the divisions between the three characters, who all have ample time and space to voice their own opinions.
Lower down the social hierarchy, the young manservant, Yasha (Gerald Kyd), entertains illusions of grandeur, whilst the old retainer, Firs (Kenneth Cranham), never forgets his place, although his age and health are against him. Varya, (Claudie Blakley) Ranyevskaya’s adopted daughter, will have to move down through the social classes, and will never marry Lopakhin, as he moves upwards. They pass like ships in the night as the social order changes. Even Gaev, (James Laurenson) Ranevskaya’s brother will have to put his indolent life of playing billiards behind him, and go to work in a bank. Meanwhile his sister’s rejection of a changed future sees her returning to her lover in Paris. She is the only one who cannot see the writing on the wall.
The play was written in the early years of the twentieth century and foreshadows the changes of the coming years. As if to emphasise these changes even further, the current production uses a new version, and one that didn’t entirely work for me as I found some of the language too modern to be uttered by actors in costumes of that era. However I thought the set design of an old wooden house was perfect and provided a fine elegiac illustration of a class in decline, and an estate on the verge of destruction.