It’s all a bit grim in turn-of-the-century Russia and Chekhov is the man to hammer this home. The peasants are revolting (almost) and the aristocracy is wasting away, squandering money it doesn’t have on things it doesn’t need in desperate pursuit of elusive happiness. Sound familiar? The tropes don’t change, really, and neither do humans – that’s what’s so depressing about Chekhov, yet so paradoxically life-affirming, too.
This subtle production, gracefully directed by Andrew Hilton, captures the desperation, the boredom and the fear of the unknown. Julia Hills’s Madame Ranevskaya is stunning. She is edgy, brittle, tender and occasionally hysterical, and she utterly, utterly refuses to see what’s right in front her while blithely anticipating that something, or someone, will rescue her. She throws her money away – literally, at one point – and tries to charm her way out of both trouble and debt. Her relationship with hard-headed businessman, Lopakhin (played with flair by Simon Armstrong) flits across so many emotional nuances that it could become hard to follow, or hard to believe in, but Hilton’s footing is sure, and he treads this tricky path with apparent ease. He is aided by a gifted cast: Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Eleanor Yates (as Varya and Anya, respectively) are particularly noteworthy. Myer-Bennett’s Varya is a tightly-wound, anxious soul who tries to keep the family estate from being sold and to rein in her mother’s reckless spending. Her final scene, where she dares to hope for something better, is breathtakingly good. Yates plays Anya as a wide-eyed ingenue, captivated by Trofimov the eternal student, and his socialist leanings and arrogant claims to be above such base emotions as love. Benjamin O’Mahony makes Trofimov more sympathetic than he perhaps appears in the text – his fervour and passion for his own inflated sense of the world make him strangely likeable, as he anticipates revolution and change for the better.
Each character is searching for a happiness or escape which cannot be found, and their circlings and pretty complaints make for rather sobering viewing. And yet, in Hilton’s production, it’s marvellously funny, too. None of the characters truly change in the course of the play – although some of them believe they have – and this production manages to feel contemporary and fresh, despite references to the setting and period dress. Although the second half drags a little, for me, it only serves to further illustrate the fruitlessness and ennui which pervades their lives. Each chance of a little happiness comes to nothing, each fraught period of anticipation becomes more highly-charged.
The translation, by Stephen Mulrine, is especially lovely; it is poetic without being flowery, and beautifully phrased without sacrificing meaning or (much) realism. It would, I suppose, be possible to criticise how frankly the characters speak to one another (“You’re awfully ugly… You need to do something about that beard… You look as though you have mange, etc”), but it is so humourously done, and seems so natural coming from this cast, that it is easily glossed over. This is language which sounds as though it’s nice to speak.
The play turns around Hill’s Madam Ranevskaya and her beloved cherry orchard, and before long the orchard becomes a symbol of everything they cling to in the face of necessary and inevitable change. If this sometimes gets a little heavy-handed, I think we can blame Chekhov rather than Hilton. This production manages to be almost positive in its sense that nothing really changes emotionally despite external upheaval, even while mourning that fact. Overall, this is a complex and delicate production which lingers in the mind long after leaving the theatre.
The Cherry Orchard is playing at the Tobacco Factory until 5th May, for more information and tickets, see the Tobacco Factory Theatre website.