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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Cherry Orchard
Union Theatre  March-April 2018

Sometimes indirection communicates more than direct statement. Sometimes a parable that illustrates a moral or message is more effective than a sermon. Sometimes allowing an audience to do some of the thinking affects them more than spelling it all out for them. 

Phil Willmott is a talented director who here adapts and rewrites Chekhov's 1904 drama in ways that only weaken and trivialise it. But it is a mark of a great work that it can survive, if not completely triumph over, any attempts to 'improve' it. 

Chekhov's play is about an impoverished land-owning family who are about to lose everything to the mortgage-holders and simply can not grasp or cope with the crisis, and the peasant-turned-entrepreneur who tries to help them but ends up amazing himself by becoming the new owner of the estate on which his family were serfs. 

Without ever losing its focus and sympathy with the specific and very human drama of these and other characters, it implies an awareness of changes in the Russian winds that would come to a head in the Revolution thirteen years later. 

Rewriting the play, adding whole scenes and speeches, Phil Willmott moves the action forward to 1917, brings the Red Army onstage to report the assassination of the Tsar and the rise of Lenin, and (spoiler alert) changes the ending so it is not the merchant Lopakhin who ends up taking over the property.

But long before the ending, starting from a wholly new opening scene, Chekhov's secondary character of the ageing student and would-be radical Trofimov is moved to the centre of the play, no longer the vague idealist with dreams of a better future who is a stock figure in every Chekhov play, but a reader of Lenin and a card-carrying Menshevik. 

(In a straight-out-of-a-textbook speech he explains the doctrinal differences between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, though he is quick to join Lenin's camp when he sees who's winning.) 

Spelling it all out like this trivialises the play, reducing it from human drama to history lesson. And it ultimately makes the main plot and characters irrelevant – why do we need to see this family's adventure as an allegory of what's happening in Russia when we have the Bolshevik commissars themselves there onstage? 

But of course you can't completely erase Chekhov's greatness. The Ranyevsky family's blind march to their doom and Lopakhin's discovery that he is middle-class are still moving human stories no matter how hard they are pushed into the background. 

And another of Chekhov's signature talents, fleshing out the most minor characters so they become alive, survives the rewriting. 

Emma Manton as the stateless and historyless Charlotta, Molly Crookes as the lovestruck housemaid Dunyasha and Caroline Wildi as impoverished neighbour Pishchika (changed from a male role to no effect beyond giving employment to an actress) are most successful in showing us that, whatever we're focusing on, they each think they're the main characters in their own plays. 

And despite every attempt to divert our attention away from her, Suanne Braun invests Ranyevskaya with a tragic dignity that reminds us that this play is about people and not politics.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Cherry Orchard - Union Theatre 2018

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