Image courtesy of www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
The Cherry Orchard- Olivier, National Theatre, London
Life is just a bowl of cherries;
Don’t make it serious;
Life’s too mysterious.
You work, you save, you worry so,
But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go.
So keep repeating it’s the berries;
The strongest oak must fall.
The sweet things in life
To you were just loaned,
So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?
Life is just a bowl of cherries,
So live and laugh at it all.
I’ll be honest, I had no prior knowledge of Chekhov or this play before seeing it. So I went along not having any preconceived ideas or experiences of how I thought it would turn out.
I should probably start by saying that this was my first time back at the Olivier stage of the National Theatre since the glory days of Frankenstein, so I was interested in what they would do with the rather cavernous space. I wasn’t disappointed, lots of wood, a staircase, and even a telegraph pole, foliage bordering the edge of the stage completed the look of a slightly derelict but much loved grand house amongst a Russian landscape. Something which particularly caught my attention was the fact that the drum revolve wasn’t used, what had become such a major piece of the Frankenstein set was absent from this production, but not actually missed.
The key aspect for me seeing this production was seeing Zoe Wanamaker on stage, a superb screen actress who I have always enjoyed but was yet to see in theatre. She was exactly as you would imagine Ranyevskaya, flitting easily between acting like a giddy teenager excitably taking in the surroundings of her beloved family home, to a woman desperately struggling to come to terms with her loss.
The Cherry Orchard is ultimately a story of loss, the loss of a child, whose death which takes place years before we join the characters but which has a lasting effects on all of them involved.
Secondly, the loss of time, youth and innocence, call it what you like, all of the characters at some point realise that they are in fact getting older and that as time passes not everything has changed for the better.
Finally, the loss of wealth, most of the characters appear at some point in the play to have lost money and property.
A play that appears to have relevance at whatever period of time it is performed, this I found made it much easier to connect with. From what I have heard about Chekhov he isn’t the easiest writer to follow, but this production was engaging and at times very funny.
Much of this humour seems to exude from a handful of the cast members, Tim Mcmullan as the rather tipsy Simyonov-Pishchik the family friend hoping to borrow money in the vain hopes of relieving his own financial burdens.
James Laurenson as older brother Gaev who often seemed in a world of his own playing imaginary games of snooker and hoping to pass on his rather useless pearls of wisdom.
Sarah Woodward as Charlotta, the likeable but eccentric nanny who delighted in a scene involving a deck of cards and a cucumber.
However, for me the most humorous performance came from Kenneth Cranham as the former butler, much of his character revolving around the hearing loss from which he suffers, or does he? I couldn’t help but think that maybe dear old Firs wasn’t as green as others believed, but chose not to hear certain things in order to avoid the disappointment and heartache which would no doubt follow. He then single-handedly provides the rather heart breaking climactic moment of the play.
Another heartfelt performance came from Claudie Blakley as Varya who turns to religion for comfort, amidst her family’s struggles and the failure of a romance with Lopakhin, (Conleth Hill) the son of a former employee who seems to have overtaken the main family in terms of financial gain.
The rest of the cast includes Charity Wakefield as Anya, the youngest daughter of Ranyevskaya, who was pleasant and easy to watch but for me seemed to be lacking something.
Pip Carter, entering as the lanky, clumsy Yepihodov added some extra slapstick, unfortunately this character trait was soon abandoned and he simply continues being rejected by Anya.
Gerald Kyd also made his mark as Yasha a manservant, or as suggested by the woman sat behind me- a gigolo, looking like he’d been ronsealed.
Another key aspect of this play is the political undercurrent, most notably accentuated by Mark Bonnar as the eternal student Trofimov, who excels in, not only his passionate idealistic philosophising but also in his flirtatious behaviour towards Anya.
As an introduction to Chekhov this production was for me, well worth seeing, and I would definitely be willing to see another.