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#169 The Cherry Orchard

May 20, 2011

Zoë Wannamaker as Ranyevska, Gerald Kyd as Yasha and Kenneth Cranham as Firs, having a grand old time losing their house.

‘Russian drama’ sounds almost as bollock-shrinkingly scary as ‘Russian literature’, doesn’t it? This production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre was nothing to be afraid of, though. In fact, it was charming, funny and immensely moving. What more can you ask of theatre?

This is the story of a once-wealthy family who just can’t face the fact that they’re about to lose their cherished home (and the cherry orchard that stands alongside it.) As well as the flighty mother and her conflicted daughters, we’re introduced to their friends, relatives and servants, forming a network of lies, responsibilities and obligations. A practical plan from an ex-peasant friend could save them, but it means destroying the cherry orchard that’s become the symbol of their happiness. It’s a world mostly seen in a kind of uneasy twilight or dawn, as the 20th Century begins, and Russia is on a collision course with an uncertain future. But this is a story about domesticity, too, and how even the most dreamy, idealistic or escapist of us has to confront the real world sooner or later.

Star power is supplied by Zoë Wannamaker as the irresponsible matriarch. Wannamaker is both technically extremely good (without, somehow, being incandescent) and matched weight-for-weight by the ensemble cast. The translation has (we presume) been given a light contemporary makeover, allowing characters to exclaim ‘bollocks!’ and act rather more like feckless farties than I imagine they did in previous productions. This seems to be in the spirit of things, though, since the play is so much about the everyday – how trivial things like having to catch a train or fix squeaky shoes bleed into life-changing moments like marriage proposals and losing your home – and it acknowledges that we don’t always draw out the epic responses we’d like to think we’d give in big moments.

Crucially, there are no heroes or villains here, and characters that a lesser dramatist would have conscientiously ‘fleshed out’ with some extra dialogue or backstory just bound on to the stage, fully formed, chock-full of their own thoughts. Everyone is likeable, too, because everyone is human. Nor does the drama – which is, after all, on an epic scale, about home and money and friendship and life – turn into cheap-ass conflict between the characters. It doesn’t need to. (I can’t think of another play in which, in the third act when tensions are at their height, one character can shake an opposing character’s hand and tell him he’s a really nice guy, and mean it.)

Although the action is expertly modulated with peaks and troughs of emotion, it’s the opposite of overtly theatrical. These are folks like us – they hum and haw and interrupt each other and forget what they were on about and, crucially, refuse to confront the issues right in front of their noses. Sometimes in drama, this sort of stasis can seem overly contrived – just kiss her, for god’s sake; just sort your life out! What’s stopping you? But not here. We know exactly what’s stopping these people: themselves. We’d be the same, because we’re not superheroes either. These are people who talk about themselves while the person they’re nominally expressing themselves to wanders off in the background, on some domestic task, leaving them in a kind of enforced, all-too-real soliloquy. We’ve all been there.

This is a tragedy on a human scale, with the full range of emotion but with neither pretension or sensation. Just a bunch of amazing, ordinary people brought to life before your eyes. Fully recommended.

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