‘Straw-hatted melancholy’. Is there a more dismissive way of referring to one of the greatest playwrights of the past 150 years, namely Anton Chekhov? Well, yes and no. Chekhov’s most successful plays – Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – all revolve around minutely detailed issues of wealth, class and society in late 19th century Russia, a country on the brink of explosion. Not, of course, that Chekhov ever lived to see the rise of Lenin and Stalin, dying as he did in 1904. The description cited above comes from the sense that his middleclass characters might mildly carp about their lack of money or success, but are still living in beautiful houses and have enough funds for trips and vodka. The great productions are those that show the aching despair underneath. Perhaps because of this dichotomy, Chekhov’s major works are often revived, and in fact the National’s new production of The Cherry Orchard follows on the heels of a very successful and enjoyable Sam Mendes staging of a new version of the play by Tom Stoppard in 2009 at the Old Vic. So how does it compare?
In the programme, the director Howard Davies makes a joke (at least I assume it’s a joke) about ‘if anyone asks for a linen suit or a parasol in this play they have to pay a fine or buy a round of drinks’. This feeling of wanting to get away from the usual Chekhovian clichés permeates his production, which has a robust, colloquial translation from Andrew Upton. Purists may well carp at some of the liberties taken – this is probably the first time that a Chekhov character’s been described as a ‘bozo’ or when someone says ‘I’ve told you a thousand bloody, frigging times’ – but the critical outrage that greeted the new version (with the Daily Telegraph’s critic pronouncing that it should be ‘thrown into the Thames’) seems hyperbolic. For better or for worse, this is straight down the line Chekhov, presented in classical style at the Olivier Theatre, and sufficiently accessible to be showcased in the NT Live season, where it will screen to cinemas across the country.
The storyline is, as ever with Chekhov, less about plot than the manner in which characters interact. Ranyevskaya (Zoe Wanamaker) is a feckless landowner facing bankruptcy, much to the despair of her daughters Anya (Charity Wakefield) and Varya (Claudie Blakley). The wealthy merchant Lopakhin (Conleth Hill), who is half-fond and half-frustrated by his neighbours, tries to arrange the sale of the cherry orchard to allow for its conversion to holiday homes when the railway line arrives, but Ranyevskaya will have none of it. Meanwhile, Lopakhin and Varya seem on the verge of forming an attachment, and ‘the eternal student’ Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) is stuck with a lot of terribly dull speechifying in which he spells out that the world is on the brink of change.
I didn’t enjoy this production as much as Mendes’ Bridge Project staging, but that’s no reflection on the calibre of this one. Hill, who’s been superb in Davies’ Russian plays before (including last year’s stunning Bulgakov adaptation The White Guard) is a fine combination of pomposity and warmth as the self-made man Lopakhin, Blakley is very moving as the plain, adopted daughter who longs for love but has no idea how to express it, and Kenneth Cranham is suitably doddery as the ancient servant, Firs. There’s also a fine comic performance from James Laurenson as Gaev, the clueless and deluded brother. In fact, the only weak link is Wanamaker, whose performance seems too telegraphed and obvious in its oscillations between gay abandon and poignancy, meaning that the eventual emotional charge seems somewhat muted.
Nonetheless, this is an intelligent, heartfelt production of a great play, and well worth going down to the National to catch, or of course watching on your local cinema come June 30th.
The Cherry Orchard runs at The National Theatre until August 13th. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the National Theatre website.