With now over 600 days of online reviewing under my belt I feel like I’ve reached a stage where I can make a confession to my audience of readers, even if that is likely to engender an element of surprise. I’ve never been that big on Anton Chekhov; there, I’ve said it. I find the slow unwinding of a generally underwhelming plotline coupled with characters who seemed steeped in melancholy and repression a bit much to bear – especially when we keep being told that these are, or are supposed to be, comedies. True I do recall enjoying a production of Ivanov with Kenneth Branagh once, but by and large he’s a playwright I’ve tended to come away from feeling a sense of disappointment. I don’t know but perhaps that makes me more Chekhovian than I’d like to admit.
Periodically I dip back into his works to see if I can muster up a degree of enthusiasm and so it was I turned to the National Theatre’s most recent production of The Cherry Orchard, although by “recent” I mean ten years ago. I’m not sure I’ve actually seen the play before, though recall studying it at one point, but somehow the narrative seemed familiar. Grand family in debt – only way out is to sell their beloved orchard – lots of inertia over this – characters undergoing various unrequited passions for each other – servant subplots – an all pervading sense of ennui and reflections on underachievement; you know the drill. As such I’m left wondering how much it has to say to us though I suppose the central theme of commercialism versus some sort of higher ideals still resonates. And there has been some attempt to give the piece a toehold in the 21st century via the dialogue. I notice this is billed as a “version” of the original (rather than translation or adaptation) so was given to wonder just how much Andrew Upton’s script departs from the original. There are modern colloquialisms and even swearing so one must assume the answer is “quite a bit”. Not being any sort of Chekhov purist, I could live with it, but I could imagine it jarring with devotees.
It’s quite hard to sympathise with the self-induced plight which the family visits on itself in this play. The nominal heads, Madame Ranyevskaya and her feckless brother Gaev, seem remarkably clueless as far as personal finance is concerned and try to deal with any issues by imitating a pair of ostriches next to a sand dune. Although I admired the skill of both Zoë Wanamaker and James Laurenson in bringing the characters to life, their almost flighty refusal to face facts became somewhat annoying, especially the latter’s misplaced sunny optimism. Wanamaker however has a couple of outstanding moments, particularly when she reveals the fate of her son and delivers an impassioned speech about her need for men even as she realises that they will let her down. Conleth Hill as businessman Lopakhin is also good value and does, indeed, manage to find the comedy in his character without forcing the issue. Kenneth Cranham is his usual excellent self as crumbling retainer Firs and provides a touching coda to the main action.
The rest of the cast (and there’s a mammoth 22 of them altogether) do what they do well and seize their moments when they come in Howard Davies’s extremely busy and at times even boisterous production. It’s obviously had a big budget thrown at it with gorgeous costumes from designer Bunny Christie (some based on Chanel originals) contrasting against the backdrop of a well realised dilapidated mansion. However, of the titular grove of trees there is absolutely no hint. Perhaps that is as it should be as the image may work best left to the mind’s eye.
I’m afraid this production didn’t really much change my mind about Chekhov, especially as it was neither a standard account or a radical departure. Given that much of the play is about contradictions, driving a middle path between reverence and reinvention may not be the best way to serve it. I notice that the National is also offering a production of Three Sisters relocated to Nigeria in 1967 – perhaps that will be the one to finally turn the tide.