Thursday, May 26, 2011

Theatre Review : The Cherry Orchard - Olivier Theatre (dir Howard Davies 16/5/11)

It’s not the plot you remember from Chekhov plays - it’s the tone, the suffocating sense of loss. You think they all take place on still summer days when no air moves – but they don’t, the plays are all spread through the year, but you are left with a feeling, an impression…

More than any other playwright, Chekhov was a visionary. He saw the changes in Russian society hurtle towards him, yet he wrote before the Revolution of 1905 when Tsarist power remained monolithic. It is difficult to watch his plays without the prism of the events that followed, since The Cherry Orchard is a revolutionary play. Ranyevskaya is an absentee landlord, a frivolous, vain woman. She has returned after ten years to her estate simply because she has run out of money – hence the necessity of the sale of the cherry orchard. The new order that replaces the old is a product of economic determinism as much as that of individual will.

Yet Chekhov never preaches. No character is sympathetic, but none are entirely unsympathetic either, all their failings are gently and humorously picked away. You want to give most of them a slap, tell them to get their act together. Its that indeterminacy which is the greatness of Chekhov – you don’t have the bleakness of Ibsen, the characters railing against the moon, or the screaming moral turmoil of Strindberg.

This production captures much of the lightness of Chekhov, but without the suffocating tone. Howard Davies tries to retain the historical context, whilst eschewing Chekhovian clichés. The result succeeds up to a point – it is a clear, lucid production but without anything that sets it apart as being magical. The same can be said of the cast – Zoë Wanamaker is well suited for the role of Ranyevskaya, the headstrong romantic helpless in the face of economic necessity, unable or unwilling to make the decisions she needs to take. Conleth Hill is very good as a ranting Lopakhin, exultant and despairing at his purchase. Best coup de theatre of the evening is courtesy a startling Sarah Wooward as the performer Charlotta, and Kenneth Cranham captures the pathos of the forgotten Firs. All are very good, but the heights remain elusive.

The Cherry Orchard will always fascinate. This is a good production, ideal for someone coming to it for the first time – but it lacks anything to set it above and beyond the several other productions of this play that we have seen in London in recent years.

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