With the 200-year-old Bristol Old Vic currently undergoing a £9.3 million renovation, due to be completed this autumn, it’s a fitting venue to see Chekhov’s final masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, in which a family face having to dramatically change their estate for commercial reasons or sell it and move on with their lives and their past.
This Bristol Old Vic and Royal Exchange production is a fine revival, examining the ties of the past and the human longing to either preserve or destroy them; themes which make the text both surprisingly fresh and poignant. Chekhov, who died shortly after this fascinating work was first performed, is the undisputed master of human dilemmas and tragicomedies, which playwright Rory Mullarkey and Olivier-award-winning director Michael Boyd’s synchronised interpretation brings to life with an unusual fluidity and subtle, but extremely effective, attempt to connect today’s audience to an array of characters of wide ranging ages, each experiencing the confusion and bewilderment of flux.
Set in the round by Tom Piper, Kirsty Bushell leads the superb 12-strong cast as the flighty Mrs Lyuba Ranevsky, the ill-equipped estate owner who returns from Paris, where she has left behind an abusive lover to whom she has foolishly lost a fortune. She is joined by her beautiful daughter Anya (Verity Blyth) and the new arrivals make quite an entrance using the stalls slip to the left of the stage.
Lyuba clearly has mixed feelings about being reunited with her ancestral home, where tragedy once tinged her appreciation of her land and people, and we watch with interest as she reconnects with her brother Gayev (Simon Coates), nun-like adopted daughter Varya (Rosy McEwen) who acts as the housekeeper, and the friends and hangers-on she left behind.
Of chief importance is the peasant-turned-entrepreneur Lopakhin (the electric Jude Owusu), whom she grew up alongside only to now need his financial advice. Lopakhin’s practical but unsentimental suggestion to axe the cherry orchard in favour of creating holiday homes that would generate a regular income and thus allow Lyuba and Gayev to pay off their debts horrifies her, however, yet whether she or the future owner decides to pull it down, the orchard’s fate is surely doomed.
Ultimately the family can either embrace the changes or be overwhelmed by them, a feeling enhanced by the fact that Lyuba’s seven year old son once drowned in the lake on the estate she can’t imagine leaving forever or destroying in order to remain. A little boy acts as his ghost, dripping with water in one vivid scene or carrying a white balloon symbolising the moon in another, and is a haunting image of the power of memories, good and bad, tying us to certain places.
Make no mistake, this play isn’t intended to be all gloomy, and the many comic observations within this work were a joy to revisit at the historic Bristol Old Vic. Owusu’s comic diamond-in-the-rough manner reminds me of Alan Sugar and brings great energy to the stage with his finger clicking and restlessness, while Togo Igawa as the aged butler Firs also delivers a wonderfully funny turn as the essential Chekhovian fool, an overlooked but vital character. Another such highlight is Julius D’Silva as the family’s eternally indebted neighbour Boris Simeyonov-Pischik.
Despite Lyuba’s apparent eagerness for Lopakhin to marry her adopted daughter Varya, his feelings are clearly more directed towards her, hence why he keeps putting off proposing to the younger woman, a tense sub-plot of unrequited love convincingly acted by Bushell, Owusu and McEwen. Other romantic story lines are also woven into the tale, but ultimately it’s what happens to the land that we care most about. When Lopakhin goes on to buy the estate we expect that he will marry Lyuba and thereby protect her precious cherry orchard, but instead we are left with a realistic finale in which the family and retainers depart for their new life, filled with sadness and perhaps a degree of relief. When The Cherry Orchard is performed badly you too are glad to see them go, but not in this case.
The Cherry Orchard at Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED until Saturday 7th April 2018. Running time approx 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets please visit the website.