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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

The Cherry Orchard

For the Archive we file reviews of several past productions of The Cherry Orchard together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.

English Touring Theatre 2000 - National Theatre 2000 - Old Vic 2009 - National Theatre 2011 - Young Vic 2014 - Union Theaqtre 2018

English Touring Theatre  Spring 2000

This crisp, clean production of the Chekhov classic is never very emotionally involving, but also avoids the turgidness and messy melodrama that the play sometimes falls into.

For those who have trouble telling their Chekhovs apart, this is the one about the fading aristocratic family who dither hopelessly while their estate is sold out from under them, and the former peasant, now a rich merchant, who buys it.

On one level, then, it is an allegory of what was going on in Russia a century ago, the displacement of one social class by another. And director Stephen Unwin has taken that subtext as the key to the characterizations and drama.

Prunella Scales plays Ranevskaya as one who has been an aristocrat all her life, even in poverty, and who cannot see life except from that perspective. Even when talking about her disastrous love affair or the pain of her child's death, she is ever correct and elegant. And when the former peasant announces his purchase of the estate it is that fact - that it is HE who has bought it, not just that it has been sold - that cracks her facade and leads to bitter tears.

Michael Feast's Lopakhin is very much the workaholic businessman, bemusedly delighted by the fact of his rapid economic rise, but mainly defined by a no-nonsense practicality and energy that make him unable to sit still when he senses work waiting to be done.

Only in the scene when he announces his purchase, when drunkenness frees his inhibitions, do we get a glimpse of the class anger that must have driven him and the gloating delight in his triumph.

The essentially one-note characterizations, as powerful as they are at their best moments, come at a price. Neither of the leads comes alive as a rounded human being except in momentary flashes, and most of the rest of the cast remain ciphers.

Curiously, the flattening helps the portrayal of some of the peripheral characters. Both Simon Scardifield, as the uppity valet, and Amelda Brown, as the governess, give their small roles more believable individuality than I've seen before.

The new translation by Stephen Mulrine is one of the stars of this production. By far the best I've encountered, it puts the play into smooth and natural colloquial English without lapsing into anachronisms or cultural clashes.

Gerald Berkowitz

Cottesloe Theatre Autumn 2000, Olivier Theatre Winter 2000-01(Reviewed in original Cottesloe Theatre production)

There is a moment near the end of the Royal National Theatre's new production of Chekhov when Vanessa Redgrave, as the aristocrat who has lost the family estate, takes one last look around the room she is about to leave forever. Because the play is being done in the round, she actually scans the audience as she turns in a circle. But we don't see ourselves reflected in her eyes - we see the walls her character is seeing.

Redgrave is one of the greatest silent actresses in the world, and that moment of absolute reality is almost worth the price of admission in itself. There's a similar moment earlier, when the memory of her dead child makes her change slowly from silent joy to silent (and then wailing) grief. Chekhov is arguably the second-greatest dramatist in history, but The Cherry Orchard has never moved me as much as his others, until the reality of experience that Redgrave brings to the central role.

Not everything in Trevor Nunn's production lives up to her standard, and there is at least one serious case of miscasting, but I'm now a lot closer to recognizing this play as the equal of The Three Sisters and The Sea Gull.

This is the one about the feckless aristocratic family who simply can't get their minds around the fact that their estate is going to be sold to pay off the mortgage, and of the now-prosperous former peasant who tries to help them but winds up buying it, to cut down and replace with summer cottages for the new middle class.

Vanessa Redgrave is without question the main attraction. Up to now, my favourite Ranevskaya was Penelope Wilton at the RSC, who caught the woman's shallowness and triviality perfectly. But Redgrave's is far more real - however foolish the woman, we experience her from the inside and believe her confusion, her pain, and even her blindness.

Corin Redgrave is a more subdued Gaev than most, less a comic fool than a schoolmasterly type, used to being in control in his very narrow realm, and unaware how often he is out of his depth. Roger Allam, an actor I have always admired, is simply wrong for Lopakhin, too smooth and genteel, unable to show the clumsy peasant beneath his newly prosperous exterior.

Ben Miles as the student Petya and Charlotte Emmerson as Anya make me realize for the first time what a total mismatch the pair are, the humourless revolutionary wannabe and the coddled airhead. Eve Best doesn't let us into long-suffering Varya, and indeed most of the scenes involving the secondary characters drag in this occasionally ponderous three-hours-plus production.

David Lan's new translation is colloquial without being anachronistic, nicely smoothing out the notoriously clumsy attempts of past translations to find equivalents of Russian jokes and idioms. But it is Vanessa Redgrave who drives this revival, and who is the real reason to see it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Old Vic Theatre Summer 2009

The Bridge Project is a Sam Mendes-directed repertory company made up of British and North American actors, with the twin homes of the Old Vic in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Their current season alternates two plays built on regret for passing time, Shakespeare's Winter's Tale and Chekhov's Cherry Orchard.

While there is great pleasure in seeing the same actors in different roles, particularly on the same day, I have to judge The Cherry Orchard the weaker half of the repertory, despite a couple of strong central performances.

Chekhov's greatness as a playwright lies at least in part in his ability to conjure up a whole world through a small domestic story, and to make us understand that every character, even the most minor, is having a life adventure of significance and might well be the hero of his or her own play, were it ever to be written. And those are the qualities I missed here.

Chekhov's story is of a land-owning family who have become so enervated that they can't really rouse themselves to a full awareness of the fact that they are bankrupt and the estate is about to be sold out from under then, and of the former peasant who has risen to merchant riches and, almost without realising it, buys it and sets out to destroy it for profit.

Though the obvious metaphor for the changing times in not Chekhov's primary focus, it provides resonances the play wants. Similarly the large secondary cast become part of the play's rich texture when we become aware of their individual reality and private dramas, but if they are just a secondary cast, they are reduced to distractions that just clutter up the stage.

And that's what happens here. The two central roles - the matriarch of the owning family and the well-meaning but crude capitalist - are well defined by director and performers, and indeed in some fresh ways. But they exist in a vacuum of the sort we don't expect from Chekhov.

Rather than suggesting that her character's fecklessness is a product of her class and upbringing, Sinead Cusack makes it purely individual, based to a great extent on a kind of agoraphobia that makes the real world just too noisy and overwhelming to cope with (a sense that director Mendes underlines by investing a couple of innocent scenes with a nightmarish quality), and in part by a sense of personal unworthiness that makes her accept all life's buffets passively.

Both qualities are suggested in the text - particularly in this version by Tom Stoppard - and I admire Cusack for finding them, even while I wish that she had not done so at the expense of other aspects of the character.

Something similar is true of Simon Russell Beale's Lopakhin. Russell Beale latches on to one frequently overlooked element in the character - the fact that he is a born worker, only comfortable when on the job and equally ill at ease in every other social situation, be it a party or a private moment with the girl he can't quite figure out a way to propose to.

It makes the man very real, and not just a symbol of the new Russia. But it doesn't explain or absorb the entire character, so that some of his behaviour (like an abrupt bit of destructiveness on buying the estate) remains as confusing loose ends.

And director Mendes and his actors are particularly disappointing in making the many other characters come alive. Only Rebecca Hall's Varya, carrying with sad dignity the knowledge that she will be unhappy all her life, and Ethan Hawke's Petya, making the perpetual student admirable and silly in equal measures, make us believe in them.

So this is not a triumphal Cherry Orchard, but one whose missed opportunities are only partially balanced by a few strong performances.

Gerald Berkowitz

Olivier Theatre    Summer 2011

Every so often the National Theatre goes into museum mode, staging perfectly respectable but not especially exciting revivals of classics, the sort of production you can't really say anything negative about except that it would be nice to have more to say something positive about. 

Howard Davies' Cherry Orchard, in a new adaptation from Chekhov by Andrew Upton, is one of these. 

This is the one about the aristocratic family who just can't get their heads around the fact that they are deeply in debt and about to lose their estate, and the former peasant and fledgling capitalist who surprises himself as much as everyone else by buying it. 

There is, of course, an unstrained allegory here, of the monumental changes taking place in Russia a little over a century ago, as a feudal society belatedly gave way to what would be a brief flourish of capitalism. 

It is that theme that adaptor Andrew Upton has chosen to stress, without warping the play, but just by expanding on some of Chekhov's more political and philosophical speeches, notably the eternal student Trofimov's utopian hopes.  

Director Davies and designer Bunny Christie pick up on this by reminding us through the unobtrusive presence of a telephone and electricity that this is a twentieth-century play looking forward to change and not a comfortable nineteenth-century period piece. 

It may be this same shift in perspective that led the always admirable Conleth Hill toward playing the new capitalist Lopakhin as somewhat richer and more established in his bourgeois status than those who have seen the play before might expect. Though this Lopakhin keeps reminding us of his humble roots, he wears his three-piece suit with ease, letting us understand that the changes have happened and he is the man of the future. 

But this innovative characterisation comes at a cost. One of the play's key moments - when Lopakhin returns from the bankruptcy auction to announce with astonishment that he bought the estate on which his father had been a serf - doesn't quite work, because for this man it would be simply another business transaction, not a moment loaded with symbolic weight. 

Zoë Wanamaker also makes a brave interpretive choice as Ranyevskaya, the lady of the house. The play is built on her refusal or inability to do anything about the impending loss of everything, and it is up to the actress to explain the character's blindness or foolishness or pigheadedness or whatever. 

Wanamaker makes her more intelligent and self-aware than I've ever seen, as if to say that even those qualities cannot save her from the stasis and impotence of her class. 

It's a brave choice, sacrificing easy sympathy or comedy, and, like Conleth Hill's characterisation, it nicely serves the play's historical-philosophical vision. But like Hill's, it also takes away some of the humanity of the character - never going so far as to reduce either of them to mere symbols, but giving us just a little bit less to relate to or feel for. 

The other members of the cast are all adequate without leaving any particular impression, another indication that the director is more attuned to the play's ideas than its people. And that, ultimately, is what makes this a solid, unobjectionable, frequently quite intelligent but never particularly involving production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Young Vic Theatre  Autumn 2014

This is a wax museum production of Chekhov's drama – literal, letter-perfect and lifeless. 

That happens every once in a while, usually because a director is overawed by a classic or has lost sight of the need to translate text into living theatre. 

What makes this particular example so odd is that Katie Mitchell has an established and respected record as an imaginative and creative director, sometimes excessively so. We can only guess that she was either distracted or chose to swing in the opposite direction, bringing nothing to The Cherry Orchard and leaving her actors somewhat stranded there onstage. 

Usually reliable performers (some of them veterans of previous Mitchell productions) like Kate Duchêne, Gawn Granger, Angus Wright and Dominic Rowan all seem to have been frozen somewhere early in the rehearsal process, when they know their lines but haven't really found their characters or – even worse – begun to inhabit the same reality as each other. 

Each functions in a vacuum, each goes through the motions of acting, and the play just doesn't happen, except in the isolated fragments that sometimes occur in rehearsal when someone stumbles into a true moment. 

As the serf-turned-capitalist trying to help the reality-denying landowners save their mortgaged estate, Dominic Rowan briefly captures the sound of a simple businessman exasperated that others can't see the obvious. And Natalie Klamar touchingly captures the hopelessness of the girl who loves him when he can't work his way around to proposing to her. 

But those are passing moments that should be barely-noticed givens in a successful production and not stand out as the only brief flashes of theatrical life. 

Simon Stephens' new adaptation trims the play to under two hours without interval and rearranges things (a bit awkwardly) so that everything can happen on one set. 

There are a few verbal infelicities ('O K', 'snuff it') and some of the names have been Anglicised – Alexander instead of Yermolai, but still Lyubov, Yasha and Leonid – but generally the new version neither adds or detracts much.

Someone coming to this play for the first time (as many in the Young Vic audience will) will think The Cherry Orchard is a dead and boring old classic. And that's a shame.

Gerald Berkowitz

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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Reviews - The Cherry Orchard  - 2000-2018
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