A drowned child, the ever turning world and not a cherry tree in sight. Michael Boyd’s production of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Bristol Old Vic is set on a minimalist turning circular stage but with a surprising mirror of the auditorium that features a full scale recreation of the seating and dress circle positioned on the stage turning the Bristol Old Vic into a theatre in the round.
First staged in 1904 the drama looks back to the past and forward to the unfolding events of the 20th century with an uncanny ability to suggest the themes of change taking place in Russia as it emerged from a semi feudal past. The universal themes of change and the brevity with which Chekov conveys so much has made this play part of the 20th century canon. It is a play that is frequently included on the curriculum for students at school and college to study as part of their English and drama courses because of those themes, the well-defined characters who represent strands in society and its language. All schools and colleges in the region should take their students to see this production due to its adherence to Chekov’s original script and the clarity with which it is presented.
Mrs Lyuba Renevsky was brought to life with a reflective subtlety by Kirsty Bushell who balanced her continuing grief over her drowned son with her insufferable inability to accept change. Chekov’s dialogue is in tune as to how we listen and answer. Any difficult question posed to one of the characters is ignored and deflected and Renevsky is the prime example as she changes the subject if she detects where the conversation is going. Who wants to admit they are a fool? Renevsky is the mistress of denial.
The other protagonist is the upwardly mobile Yermolay Lopakhin the business man from humble stock who is enterprising and has none of the baggage of Renevsky and her like. Jude Owusu was a believable and exasperated Lopakhin who desperately tried to convince Renevsky to sell the orchard for profit as holiday lets. Listening to conversations in the interval as to the merits of casting black actors in a turn of the century Russian drama (Owusu is black) I couldn’t help but thinking how theatre had changed for the better and how this was a production for our time. Why is there even a discussion about colour or race when nobody as far as I know in the cast is Russian or attends the Orthodox Church services in Bristol? The idea is nonsense as the discussion should be about the acting and in Lopakhin we have perhaps one of Putin’s 21st century cronies in the making as he boasts of being rich. And although Owusu cuts it as a competitive and ruthless business man, when he describes the auction there’s no hint he may use nerve gas to bump off rival bidders.
There was a surprise before the play began with the sudden appearance on stage of the theatre’s artistic director Tom Morris who explained that due to illness the eccentric character of Charlotta (Anya’s governess) would not be played by Eva Magyar but instead the bearded assistant director Evan Lordan would step in. Initially Morris said Boyd was not sure if Lordan could pull it off since he had a beard and was a man, but after thinking about it agreed. Lordan played it straight despite his beard and (what must have been an inner urge to panto dame it) Lordan got away with it – and since Charlotta was from a circus background – it was just about believable. Charlotta is one of Chekov’s characters who you know will survive the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions as she is pragmatic – a 20th century person who will adapt – unlike poor old Firs.
The old retainer Firs dressed immaculately and played with an elegant frailness by Togo Igawa fusses with a maternal affection for his master over Gayev’s dress sense ringing humour from his sparse lines. Pompous Gayev (Simon Coates) was perfect as he railed against change praising the book case for its long service but failing to do the same for the put upon staff. Another bit part character who was spot on was Jack Monaghan as the clumsy Yepikhodov knocking over a side table and entering with unfeasibly squeaky boots – every inch the idiot – while Yasha (Hayden McLean) was excellent as the good time toy boy leaching off the fading aristo’s money. Verity Blyth as Anya gave a pitch perfect performance balancing naivety with entitlement, empathy with selfishness. And with her sunray pleated skirt and assorted fin de circle outfits (and it must be added Yasha and Lopakhin’s sexy tight fitting tailored suits) it is full marks to the costume department.
Harry Mumblestone as the threatening vagrant represented the just-under-the-radar-underclass that haunted Russia then and now as well as Britain today – as society pretends homelessness doesn’t exist – while at the other extreme flick through the pages of the Financial Times you will find the equivalent of Boris Simeyonov-Pischik (an on form Julius d’Silva) who despite his stupidity survives and prospers in part because of his inherited wealth, luck and connections. Rosy McEwen’s stoic interpretation of Varya was strangely agonising as she is ignored in love by Lopkhin.
Emma Naomi (Dunyasha) had a sensual stage presence but was also an essential support to Anya’s pampered lifestyle and was fittingly brushed off as below the salt by the young aristocrat but somehow conveyed that hurt that could manifest its revenge in the 1917 Revolution a decade later. Enyi Okoronkwo as the eternal student Trofimov was fittingly angry, confused, articulate and a sociably inept visionary who at times appeared to predict the future. Characters like Trofimov can be hard to portray but Enyi pulled it off with his quivering voice and ability to sound genuine. And the inclusion of a child by Boyd in the cast to play the lost seven-year-old son of Ranevsky was in turns enchanting and also haunting in this brilliant co-production by Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Exchange Theatre.
The play continues to April 7, 2018.
- The Cherry Orchard is at The Royal Exchange Theatre from April 19 to May 19, 2018.
For more details visit https://bristololdvic.org.uk
For more about the stage design by Tom Piper of the show visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwKw5H6kQLQ
For more theatre reviews from Harry visit www.harrymottram.co.uk