Where and when: Greenwich Theatre, 12th-14th September then 4 week national tour
What it’s all about… Taking Chekhov out of the normal stuffy drawing room setting, this is a play consisting of five short tales delivered by a band of travelling gypsies with live music as an integral part of the action. Making the most of the humour, pathos and oddity that is Chekhov!
You’ll like it if… you like to laugh, you like classical theatre with an innovative twist, you like Chekhov, you love music or you enjoy a story well told.
You should see it because… it will make you laugh and cry and keep you thoroughly entertained. These brilliantly observed stories are delivered by a group of five talented actor musicians who will keep you on the edge of your seat all evening. The show is accompanied with a thorough education pack for those who want to know more about Chekhov or for school parties.
Few plays have arguably resonated at the Royal Exchange Theatre more profoundly than those by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. His plays benefit enormously from being performed in the round and this superb production is no exception.
This version of The Cherry Orchard, co-produced with the Bristol Old Vic, comes to the Exchange garlanded with four and five star reviews. Directed by Michael Boyd, former Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a production that shows off Chekhov’s naturalistic masterpiece to great effect. The setting for the production appears to have been updated to a period that is placed somewhere between the mid 1930s and the lead up to the Second World War. It features a multinational cast that clearly delight in Boyd’s assured, fresh and modern interpretation.
Facing financial ruin, Luba Ranyevskaya, a beautiful and spirited widow, returns home after a self-imposed exile brought on by the deaths of her husband and young son. At her family estate she is welcomed back by Lopakhin, a wealthy local businessman who offers to buy it and her beloved cherry orchard.
This being Chekhov, social, personal and political concerns collide and although Lopakhin, the son of a former family servant, believes that the old aristocratic order must change, his unrequited love for Ranyesvskaya and gratitude for her family’s past kindnesses makes it hard for him to contemplate splitting up the estate. Whilst Ranyevskaya agonises over the sale, disaffected servants, for which Boyd has interestingly chosen to cast BAME actors, look forward to the demise of the gentry, anticipating changes that in time will have unparalleled consequences not only for Russia but all of the Western World.
Boyd’s production is stripped bare of any artifice. For the whole performance the auditorium lights are dimmed, making the audience clearly visible, and only essential period props and furniture are used. The wooden panelled floor makes the actors appear as if they are performing on a concert stage and there is indeed something operatic about this production. As Ranyevskaya, Kirsty Bushell is captivating and hauntingly moving; it is impossible not to share in her grief and pain. She is oblivious to all the change around her and only wakens out of her dreamlike state when she briefly sees the spirit of her dead child come alive in front of her eyes.
The relationship between Ranyevskaya and Lopakhin is at the very heart of the play; it drives the narrative, creates tension and as Boyd points out in a fascinating programme interview, serves to underline the gulf that exists between their respective classes. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is excellent; his performance is nuanced and highly detailed. The scenes between him and Bushell are compelling and gripping.
Rory Mullarkey’s new and very modern translation helps to make Chekhov’s sub text clearer. Even though a century separates Mullarkey and the premiere of The Cherry Orchard, one senses that he keenly shares Chekhov’s view of the world and some of his sentiment. With this production, the Royal Exchange once again takes an important classic and makes it wonderfully accessible and relevant to the modern age. It is highly recommended.
It only takes one look at Odin Corie’s set – a light, sophisticated and immaculately decorated family room, which makes the intimate Brockley Jack Studio look far bigger than it is – to understand that with their third foray into the Russian classics, Arrows and Traps mean business. Following the success of their Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment in 2016 and ’17 respectively, the multi-Offie nominated company has now turned its attention to Chekhov, with a new adaptation of Three Sisters written and directed by Ross McGregor.
Set in a Russian garrison town, the play immediately introduces the eponymous threesisters: Olga (the responsible one), Masha (the passionate one) and Irina (the romantic one). One year on from the death of their father, all three yearn to find some joy and purpose in a life that’s become relentlessly dull and ordinary. They believe the answer lies in their long-held dream of returning to Moscow – and yet, four years later, we find them exactly where they began, having moved precisely nowhere. This inertia means that not only have they not found happiness; they’re also significantly worse off, thanks to their brother Andrei (Spencer Lee Osborne). He’s led them into ruin with his gambling habit and disastrous marriage to Natasha (Hannah Victory) – a local girl they all once looked down on, but who now rules the roost with an iron fist and has, little by little, driven them out of their own home.
The substantial cast of fourteen is uniformly excellent. Cornelia Baumann never disappoints, and she hits the target again with her fragile and lonely Olga, trapped in a public service job she never wanted because she’s too nice to say no. At the other end of the scale, Claire Bowman is full of uncompromising fire as the sharp-tongued Masha; her disdain for her comically ridiculous husband Fyodor (Stephen MacNeice, whose plaintive insistence that he’s a happy man becomes harder and harder to believe) is matched only by her passion for the equally unhappily married Colonel Vershinin (Toby Wynn-Davies). Somewhere in the middle, Victoria Llewellyn balances the two out as the youngest sister Irina, soaring from ecstatic highs to desperate lows in her search for an idealistic true love that seems doomed to end in tragedy.
The production also makes interesting use of music, with musical director Elliot Clay combining sweeping orchestral tracks with a more modern twist provided by guitar-toting soldiers Vladimir and Alexei (Freddie Cambanakis and Ashley Cavender), and – in a rare moment of joyful abandon – a traditional Russian singalong that might just have you reaching for the vodka, and will almost certainly get stuck in your head, possibly forever. (Just to make sure, they sing it twice.)
At 2 hours and 45 minutes it’s not a short play, but we easily become invested enough in the characters that the story remains compelling, and under Ross McGregor’s direction it never feels like the pace is too slow – all the more impressive when you consider this is, by its very nature, a play where the characters talk a lot but don’t do much. Five years of consistent excellence from Arrows and Traps have set the bar incredibly high – but while Three Sisters perhaps lacks a little of the cinematic grandeur we’ve seen in the company’s earlier work, this is still without doubt a stylish and beautifully acted piece of storytelling.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉