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The Cherry Orchard: a review

Now running at the Bristol Old Vic, Chekov's famous play: tragedy, comedy – or both? Muddy finds out...

Chekov insisted his final masterpiece was a comedy, so he wasn’t best pleased to see it directed as a tragedy at its first showing in 1904. The dual nature of the play has famously challenged directors ever since. This new production at the Bristol Old Vic features a fresh new translation by award-winning playwright Rory Mullarkey, a deceptively simple set design by Tom Piper (creator of the ceramic poppy installation at the Tower of London) and direction by Michael Boyd, the man largely credited with saving the RSC. With credentials like these, you know you’re in for a treat.

For the first time at the Old Vic, the U-shaped auditorium has been transformed so the audience circles the stage. Adding to the magic is that half the audience don’t realise this until the curtain has gone up.

Kirsty Bushell (Ranyevskaya) and Jude Owusu (Lopahkin).Photo: Jon Rowley

Chekov’s play is set in a tumultuous time in Russia’s history, just 14 years before the Bolshevik Revolution. Following the abolition of serfdom in the mid-19th century, the old order is being overturned. The merchant class is elbowing out the landed gentry – with hints of the more radical events to come.

Through the story of the aristocratic Gayev family – and various employees and hangers on – Chekov shows the poignancy and absurdity of a land owning class in decline trying to resist the march of change. The inability of Madam Ranyevskaya to face up to these changes means she ends up losing pretty much everything. The impending destruction of the family’s cherished cherry orchard after auctioning their estate to pay off their debts symbolises the end of an era. But also how Ranyevskaya’s world, inner and outer, is falling apart.

The company. Photo Jon Rowley.

The themes of privilege, identity, loss and how social change affects people are still relevant today. But the play is also intensely biographical. Chekov’s mother went into debt after a builder cheated her, and the house she’d built was secretly bought and demolished by a wealthy man she’d regarded as a friend. Later, on selling his own estate, Chekov was devastated to discover the buyer had felled an orchard he had planted. Make no mistake, this is a man who loved trees.

Kirsty Bushell (Motherland) gives a magnetic performance as the vibrant, but damaged Ranyevskaya. Profligate, unlucky in love and grief stricken at the tragic drowning of her young son, Ranyevskaya is ill-equipped to deal with the family’s plight. A woman living on the edge, she can’t accept their way of life is over.

Kirsty Bushell as Ranyevskaya. Photo Jon Rowley

Wealthy former serf Lopakhin, convincingly played by Jude Owusu, has held a torch for her since they were both children – him a peasant child, her an heir to the estate. He hopes to come to her rescue. But Ranyevskaya turns a deaf ear to his proposal that she should sell the cherry orchard to developers to save the rest of the estate, proclaiming that it would be the destruction of everything she holds dear. When Lopakhin takes matters into his own hands and buys the orchard to chop it down to build holiday cottages, we aren’t sure where our sympathies lie.

Kirsty Bushell (Ranyevskaya) and Jude Owusu (Lopahkin).Photo: Jon Rowley

In a moving speech Lopakhin recalls how his grandparents were once slaves on the estate and we end up silently rooting for him – or not so silently in my husband’s case. The casting of the aristocrats as white and those of peasant or lower class as black adds an extra layer of poignancy, especially in a city whose early fortunes were built on the proceeds of black slavery.

Jude Owusu as Lopakhin. Photo: Jon Rowley

Equally good are the rest of the cast, with some superb comic performances. Eva Magyar plays the screamingly eccentric governess with her melancholy and card tricks (and cheekbones to die for), Julius D’Silva is the aristocratic neighbour fallen on hard times, always badgering for a loan or boasting about his improbable money-making schemes. And Ranyevskaya’s brother, played by Simon Coates, is a comic windbag rendered useless by a lifetime of privilege.

Eva Magyar as Charlotta. Photo: Jon Rowley

The circular design draws the audience in and the ghost of the drowned child adds a poetic haunting quality – there’s even a moment of comedy there when the boy pulls an unfeasibly long bench out of a small cupboard like a child magician.

Rowan Williams as Grisha. Photo: Jon Rowley

You feel your allegiances and emotions constantly switching as you watch these flawed, but largely sympathetic characters trying to move their way through a time of crisis and social change. At the end of the play, a sudden change to modern dress means the characters could just as well be you or I.

Managing perfectly the playwright’s notorious tightrope between comedy and tragedy, Chekov would have not only liked this production – he would have been dancing in the aisles.

Words: Ann Dix

The Cherry Orchard is on at The Bristol Old Vic until Sat 7 April. Book tickets. Box office 0117 987 7877.

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