Nobody does unhappy families quite like the Russians. Chekhov’s reputation as a dramatist is tied to his mastery of the genre, and yet The Cherry Orchard, his final play, was intended as a farce. In true Barthesian fashion, a great many people disagree with this categorisation, not least the famed auteur Stanislavsky, who said that, upon reading it:
“I wept like a woman, I tried to control myself, but I could not. I can hear [Chekhov] say: “But please, this is a farce…” No, for the ordinary person this is a tragedy.”
Director Mehmet Ergen suggests that the play is remarkable because it carries “the sense that something enormous is going to happen […] something elusive, but very powerful.”
It is not enough to say that the play is one thing or another because its characters are self-absorbed, absurd, and at times, slightly mad – I suspect that, in part, people are either driven to hilarity or despair by the ever-increasing tension.
What is certain is that the play could, for all its aching beauty, be utterly lifeless in the wrong hands. Ergen’s production is not only insightful and vibrant, but offers a poignant examination of the inevitability of change, and the manners in which we face it.
Set at the turn of the 20th Century, the play takes place in the ancestral estate of Mme Ranevskaya (Sian Thomas), who left Russia five years prior, following the death of her young son. She returns with brother Gayev (Jack Klaff) and youngest daughter, Anya (Pernille Broch) and feels that nothing has changed. Yet their wealthy friend and former serf, Lopakhin (Jude Akuwudike), tells them that the family’s many debts can only be resolved by selling the sprawling cherry orchard on their land, to provide space for weekenders to build their summer cottages. Though they continue to pursue their lives without care, the age of the aristocrat begins to visibly fade.
The Cherry Orchard is injected with enormous pathos, from Thomas’s thoughtful depiction of Mme Ranevskaya’s bereavement to Robin Hooper’s touching turn as Firs, the house’s senile retainer. Mme Ranevskaya’s adoptive daughter, Varya (Jade Williams) also cuts a suitably melancholic figure, her complex relationship with Lopakhin paradoxically offering escape from her unhappy life, whilst chaining her to it. The cast do a tremendous job of exploring how their characters carry their prisons with them, and how they can be rendered inert by fear or resignation. In turn, the production is characterised and elevated by its remarkable subtlety, with comedy and tragedy perpetually bubbling through Trevor Griffiths’ gorgeous translation.
Klaff’s Gayev is quite wonderful, assiduously escaping the daily pressures of contemporary life, whilst remaining blissfully optimistic about his future. Simon Scardifield’s hapless Epikhodov, who clumsily charms maid Dunyasha (Lily Wood) before bumbling through a series of pratfalls, teeters beautifully on the verge of monumental collapse, and we fear he will take others with him. And yet, uncommonly for Chekhov, his gun remains unfired, a symbol of frustrated intent. Perpetual student Peter (Abhin Galeya) is also fascinating in this regard, wooing Anya with his poetic talk of humanity’s inertia, without bucking the trend himself. Mme Ranevskaya observes that he lacks ‘generosity and consideration’, but it is naturally far more complex. Peter is pompous and churlish, yet Galeya is also terrific at demonstrating his fascination with others, fuelled by a desire to understand human behaviour, and perhaps to help people achieve the sense of value and purpose that he lacks.
The ending, which includes a tour de force from Akuwudike’s triumphant Lopakhin, and Firs’ haunting acceptance of his oblivion, is to be admired for its ambiguous tone – the unlikely resolution of aristocratic wastrel Pischick’s (a fine comic performance from Jim Bywater) financial woes contrasting beautifully with upset romances and uncertain futures. Ergen and his excellent cast exemplify the importance of negative capability, whilst recognising how difficult it is to put this philosophy into practice.
Mehmet Ergen’s production of Chekhov’s final play is thoughtful and thought-provoking, characterised by a number of terrific performances and a well-judged sense of irresolution. Whether you are a Chekhov neophyte or keen scholar, I am certain that you will be enriched by this production.
Until 25 March 2017
Photos: Robert Workman