The Cherry Orchard, Arcola Theatre, London ★★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Chekhov’s final play, written when the playwright was in his early 40s, can be thought of as being remarkably prescient. The tale of a wealthy aristocratic family that has been living beyond its means being brought low, to be replaced by the lower classes, presaged the Russian Revolution by over a decade.

In the centenary year of the Revolution, Trevor Griffiths’s new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, based on a translation by Helen Rappaport, highlights the parallels between the circumstances of Madame Ranevsky’s family and the downfall of Tsarist Russia without overshadowing the central story.

Indeed, while such parallels are laid out in plain sight and justify the play’s inclusion in the Arcola’s Revolution season, they are never overpowering. Instead, there is an emphasis on the social comedy in Chekhov’s writing. The playwright considered The Cherry Orchard to be bordering on farce, although original director Konstantin Stanislavski chose instead to treat it as a tragedy. Griffiths’s script veers towards the former, particularly in the first act as we meet the characters and establish their interactions with one another.

Sian Thomas’s Ranevksy is presented as a warm mother, saddened by the death some time ago of her young son, but not hamstrung by it as some productions would have it. Her daughters, the earnest, competent Varya and the optimistic, practical Anya, offering twin views of possible aristocratic reform, find themselves unable to control their mother’s kind-hearted profligacy. Jude Akuwudike’s Lopakhin, as the child of a family of serfs with his own money, buzzes around the family as a friend, potential adversary, saviour or suitor. Of all the principals, Akuwudike feels the least comfortable in his character’s skin, at times threatening to pull us out of the world director Mehmet Ergen creates. But those moments pass, and his strangulated relationship with Jade Williams’s Varya produces scenes of exquisite awkwardness.

Among the supporting cast, Lily Wood’s broad Northern housemaid Dunyasha and her fractious relationship with the brash, self-confident manservant Yasha (Ryan Wichert) provide light relief, but leave the broad comedy to the ancient Firs (a shuffling Robin Hooper). Jim Bywater’s Pishchik dominates comedy proceedings, though, with a performance that has echoes of Steve Delaney’s character of Count Arthur Strong.

As events conspire to rob Madame Ranevksy of her ancestral home, the warmth of Griffiths’s interpretation of these characters makes their downfall, and others’ ascendancy, filled with a slightly melancholic, but warm-hearted, sense of renewal. While the orchard itself is destroyed, there is a sense of a progression rather than an ending. And as the last production in the Arcola’s Revolution season, it is a fitting allegorical finale.

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