Sunday, 15 May 2011

Cherry Orchard at National Theatre, London

Zoe Wanamaker in The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
This play cast such a spell over me on Friday night that I was still thinking about it as I opened my eyes Saturday morning. But then that is how Chekhov - done well - usually affects me.

I remember the first time I saw The Seagull at Kansallisteatteri (Finnish National Theatre) in Helsinki. I must have been about nineteen and I went on my own because my then boyfriend wasn't at all interested in theatre. I'd seen many plays before with my mother - I was born in Tampere which had a strong socialist theatre culture - but this Chekhov production blew me away. That night sitting in the dark theatre on my own, re-ignited my desire to become an actress, something I'd dreamed about all my childhood. For a few weeks I regretted my sensible choice of study, economics, but soon the bitter reality of life's limited choices hit me and I forgot about my arty ambitions.

Which is what Chekhov's Cherry Orchard is largely about: what is it that is important in life? Is it money, love or something higher - a responsibility to society and to other human beings? In this new version of the play by Andrew Upton, Zoe Wanamaker plays Ranyevskaya, the flamboyant owner of the Cherry Orchard which is under threat because of the debts this life-loving woman has incurred in Paris. She refuses to 'see sense' (unlike me at nineteen; more's the pity) and join a money-making scheme provided by a nouveau riche son of a serf turned merchant, Lopakhin (Conleth Hill). He wants to develop the land and build holiday homes on the Cherry Orchard. But Ranyevskaya cannot see that times are changing, 'Don't talk to me about money,' she says. Of course this deluded upper class attitude is her downfall.

Lopakhin on his part fails in something much more important: when faced with the chance for happiness he cannot bring himself to grab it. He truly believes money will bring happiness, however much people like the eternal student and philosopher, Petya Trofimov (Mark Bonnar), try to convince him otherwise. But even the tutor, Petya, is misguided; he thinks he's beyond trivial human emotions. Yet, while he's busy philosophising, he's also falling madly in love with Ranyevkaya's beautiful daughter, Anya (Charity Wakefield).

Last night made me again realise what a brilliant writer Chekov was. The same issues of love, power and society that affected people in Russia of the early 20th century, and which cut so deeply into my being thirty years ago, still resonate today.

Upton's new version brings Chekhov's dialogue up to date in a way that makes the interaction between the characters not just passionate but also funny. There's even a joke about the banking crisis when the batty uncle, Ranyevskaya's brother, Gaev, (played by James Laurenson) hears that he could borrow money to pay interest on their debts and then borrow some more to pay the interest on the second loan and so carry on indefinitely, 'It's easy,' he says. As a final irony, he later becomes a banker.

The human frailties which Chekhov excels in writing about are portrayed equally competently by the actors of this production. Wanamaker is singularly brilliant but her supporting cast are at least equal to her in their performances. The sets too are broodingly beautiful; the lighting alone should receive a prize. I was completely convinced I was in an old crumbling Russian Dacha and not sitting in the stalls of a central London theatre.

The set at the beginning of the second act.
I just wish I'd had the senselessness of Ranyevskaya at nineteen...ce la vie, eh?

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov at The Olivier, National Theatre, London.
Opening 17 May 2011.
Length about 2 hours 55 minutes with one interval.
On 30th June 20111 The Cherry Orchard will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide.

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