Guest review by Richard Hall
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.