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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Zoe Wanamaker, Claudie Blakley and Kenneth Cranham/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

What a difference a date makes. For their new production of The Cherry Orchard, translator Andrew Upton and director Howard Davies have shifted the action forward to 1905. Yes, that’s only a year after the one in which this masterpiece was written, but between those two dates the world changed with the arrival of the Russian revolution. Although the (in)action of the play remains true to what Chekhov wrote, this political shift disturbs its tone. Ruinously.
In what at times feels like a Soviet corrective to the overwhelmingly sentimental master-and-servant love fest that is Downton Abbey, this production takes a cast of contradictory characters whom Chekhov so thrillingly refused to judge and proceeds to pin them down like butterflies. The effect, as that image suggests, is deadening.
Class lines are drawn up, almost for battle, with the servants routinely treated poorly by their masters and mistresses. Zoe Wanamaker’s Ranevskaya returns home from the collapse of her relationship in Paris and wafts about Bunny Christie’s oddly barn-like, all-wood set taking everyone beneath her for granted.
Such hauteur is undoubtedly there in the original, but what should make her character fascinating is Chekhov’s hallmark balancing act. Just as we are about to lose patience with her, we should suddenly be awakened to the more selfless side of her nature in her understanding and caring for those around her. But Davies encourages Wanamaker to play her as girlish and comically infuriating, never once giving her leave to earn audience sympathy. It’s well-nigh impossible to care for someone so foolishly self-absorbed.
Such one-note characterisation, in keeping with so judgmental a production, is prevalent almost throughout. Gerald Kyd ups his devilishly handsome quality as on-the-make Yasha, which makes sense of Dunyasha’s infatuation with him. But he’s so obviously insincere that it makes her look stupid and all tension between them evaporates. 
Things reach real perversity with Varya. Davies has ideal casting in Claudie Blakeley, mistress of forbearance and disguised pain, as the downtrodden, unhappy, aging young woman for whom marriage is the only way out. But when the translation gives her the line, “If I catch you within an inch of this house I will flog you within an inch of your pathetic life,” all sympathy is lost.
Even Conleth Hill, an actor with seemingly endless range, falls foul of the production. His Lopakhin, the former peasant who buys the orchard, starts out as intriguingly multi-faceted, but by the end his descent into resentment and rage feels overstated.
From the team who breathed such vivid theatrical life into Gorky’s Philistines and Bulgakov’s The White Guard at this address, this production with its loudly anachronistic dialogue  – "Oh, bollocks!" – is as much a shock as it is a disappointment. Only the almost palpable heat of Neil Austin’s lighting – shifting inexorably from sun-baked afternoon to the mysteries of dusk – comes close to capturing Chekhov’s magnificently evanescent, contradictory moods.

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