Royal Exchange Theatre
By Anton Chekhov
Translation by Rory Mullarkey
Directed by Michael Boyd
Rory Mullarkey and Michael Boyd are the first Russian speaking Translator/Director team to pool their skills and mutual love of Chekhov to create a new British translation of The Cherry Orchard since Michael Frayn in the Eighties. The result is a success that retains and celebrates the comedic elements while also balancing the tragedy and loss from the past with the fears and hopes of a dawning new age. Little actually happens in this play but it is always engrossing as obvious outcomes and solutions are evaded in favour of unsolved problems and enigmas. Chekhov was a doctor as well as a writer and in this, his last play there are acute observations of the human condition but no diagnosis.
The most striking element of Tom Piper’s design for this production is the starkness of the set. Apart from a few falling blossoms the audience are left to imagine the lush white blooms in an orchard that is the one remarkable thing in this entire province. The once grand house is also left to the imagination as the set is a huge expanse of bare wooden floor, a single chair an occasional table and a hundred year old bookcase. The wooden floor dominates as if it hints at what will become of the soon to be felled cherry trees. It is like a blank canvas awaiting a fresh start having probably been stripped of its plush furnishings to meet the mounting debts. When Uncle Leonid makes an impassioned speech to the bookcase it is both ridiculous and poignant as it represents the grandeur of a fast diminishing lifestyle.
Despite the bareness of the stage this is a production that is full of imagery and references to colour. The orchard is the white of Lyubov’s girlish summer gown, the white of torn up telegrams, and old money. The white of a ghostly balloon moon and of innocence and purity. The blacks and greys of duty, servility and squashed hope is there in Firs’ uniform and Vavara’s drab clothing. The cherry pink of Lyubov’s velvet dress is the pink of ripened sexuality and the cherry jam of yesteryear. The yellow gold of Lopakhin’s polished shoes alluding to the brassy nature of new money. The casting choices also make a provocative colour statement about history of slaves/serfs and masters. All the family in the house are white actors while the staff or children of serfs are all actors from other ethnicities. Emma Cains also cleverly uses the trajectory of the costumes styling to reflect the move from the past towards a new age and new freedoms.
There are some especially strong performances with Kirsty Bushell as Madame Lyubov deftly portraying the fragility of a woman seared by grief whose party girl approach to heartache keeps her constantly on the move like a beautiful butterfly. This is a woman whose husband died of champagne while her little son Grisha drowned on the estate a mere six months later. Seemingly careless and insouciant she flirts and flits around giving out gold to strangers when she is about to lose her family home. If kisses were roubles this family would be debt free. At moments when her gaiety fractures Bushell is raw with tangible pain. The scene where Grisha is on the chaise longue beautifully captures the fractures in Lyubov’s life -a mother mourning at her son’s funeral wake bleeds into a riotous house party. Rosy McEwen as the disappointed and disillusioned Vavara is as pale and luminous as the haunting moon. The restraint and delicacy of her performance is beautifully balanced as she yearns to be both a wife and a nun. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is a seamless blend of arrogant new money and success with hints of an awkward lovelorn son of a serf. A self made man who is rightly proud of his achievements yet is tongue tied and paralyzed to speak his feelings.
The threads of the past, present and future are ever present. Ancient butler Firs can only remember the past but will be the last living soul in this house. The child haunts the house in timeless fashion observing everything silently. New love affairs begin, old ones may start again and some remain as simply frustrated yearnings. Chekhov throws up possibilities like blossom petals and this production casts them up in the air with real love and delicacy.
Images Seamus Ryan