22 June 2009

The Cherry Orchard - The Old Vic - Wednesday 24th June 2009

Early one May morning, after a long absence (during which she lived in Paris), the widow Madame Ranevsky returns home to her family estate to find that it has been heavily mortgaged to pay for her extravagances and that it is to be auctioned off. With her arrives her daughter, Anya, and Anya’s German governess, Charlotte. They are greeted by Varya, Ranevsky’s adopted daughter who manages the remnants of the once-grand estate; Gayev, Ranevsky’s brother; Lopakhin, a former peasant who has become a wealthy merchant and neighbour members of the staff; and other neighbors and friends.

Amidst her recollections of her girlhood nursery, Madame Ranevsky is reminded that the estate will be sold to clear debts in August, unless the family can raise sufficient funds. Generous and distracted, she seems incapable of recognizing andacting on her desperate situation. Lopakhin offers to lend Ranevsky 50,000 roubles to cover the debts and save the estate--if she will permit the land to be divided into lots for summer tourist homes. This, however, involves cutting down the estate’s famous cherry orchard, which Ranevsky loves dearly; and the plan is rejected as sacrilege. Several other ideas to save the estate also arise: Gayev will try to secure a loan, or perhaps Anya will visit her wealthy great-aunt, a countess in distant Yaroslavl, and be richly married. Nothing is resolved.

Later in the summer, courtship seems to preclude business. The new servant, Yasha, competes with the estate clerk Yepikhodov for the attentions of Dunyasha the maid; Varya tries to prevent a union between her sister, Anya, and the perpetual student Trofimov (former tutor to Ranevsky's infant son, who drowned at age six), and everybody assumes that Varya will marry Lopakhin, though there has been no proposal.
In the midst of this, Lopakhin tries vainly to get the family to be more practical, but Ranevsky confesses that she squandered her fortune on her unfaithful lover in Paris and is probably not capable of practical dealing with the immediate problem. Firs, an aged servant, longs for “the good old days” before the serfs were emancipated, but Trofimov dreams of progress. He is glad the estate will be sold, for to him every leaf in the cherry orchard tells of a serf’s complaints and sufferings.

August arrives, and the estate must be auctioned to meet the mortgage payments. Gayev attends the sale, hopeful that the great-aunt’s money will be enough to satisfy the creditors. At the mansion a farewell party is underway even though there are no funds for the orchestra. The household members dance and quarrel until Lopakhin returns with Gayev from the auction to announce that he has bought the estate where his father and other family members once was serfs, and he intends to carry out his plan for cutting down the orchard. Seeing Ranevsky’s sorrow, Lopakhin remorsefully wishes that “this miserable disjointed life could somehow be changed.” Anya comforts her mother, promising that together they will build a new, happy life.

In the autumn, with the estate and orchard now gone, Ranevsky readies for her departure to Paris, where she will live on the money from the great-aunt. Anya will accompany her and attend school. Gayev has a job as a bank clerk; Trofimov, as a translator. Lopakhin has failed to propose to Varya, so she will become a housekeeper for others. However, Lopakhin does hire Yepikhodov to work for him and promises to find a new position for Charlotte. Ranevsky is worried about the old and ailing Firs, but is told that he is in the hospital. Once the family and their entourage depart, however, Firs finds himself alone, locked in the deserted house. Axe strokes resound outside, as the woodsmen begin at last to cut down the cherry orchard.


Ranevksya – Sinead Cusack
Anya – Morven Christie
Varya – Rebecca Hall
Gaev – Paul Jesson
Lopakhin – Simon Russell Beale
Trofimov – Ethan Hawke
Simeonov – Dakin Matthews
Charlotta – Selina Cadell
Yepikhodov – Tobias Segal
Dunyasha – Charlotte Parry
Firs – Richard Easton
Yasha – Josh Hamilton

Production Credits:
Director - Sam Mendes
Translation - Tom Stoppard

Set Designer: Anthony Ward
Costume Designer -Catherine Zuber
Lighting -Paul Pyant
Sound-Paul Arditti
Music-Mark Bennett
Music Direction-Dan Lipton
Choreographer-Josh Prince
Casting-Maggie Lunn & Nancy Piccione, C.S.A

To Waterloo on a broiling June evening, along with seemingly thousands of teenage girls dressed as jailbait, who booked tickets for this show not because they wanted to get to the bottom of Chekov’s enigmatic tale of a civilisation in decline and family angst, but because they wanted to swoon over Mr. Ethan Hawke, who is apparently an actor in moving pictures. No, I haven’t seen any of them, and no, I had only vaguely heard of him before. So I can’t tell you what all the fuss was about, except that teenage girls currently seem to be going for lank, beardy types who would look more at home in the kind of bar that has wooden floors, half-length louvre doors, a pianola playing honkytonk music in the corner and possibly Mae West sipping moonshine and tonic at one end of the counter while keeping an eye on her scantily clad burlesque dancers. Unfortunately for said teenage girls, Mr. Hawke’s appearances were mercifully brief so, during the longeurs between his scenes, they kept themselves occupied by doing their nails, texting their friends (“Chelsea and me is at featre c-ing Ethan he is well fit innit”), eating rapidly melting chocolate eclairs and shifting so much in their creaky seats that being in the Upper Circle sounded like being on board the Marie Celeste during a hurricane (of note is that quite a few of them were so obviously bored by the whole thing that they didn’t come back after the interval). The rest of the audience peered through the gloom trying to make out what was happening on stage (Lighting by “Desperately Underlit Theatre Productions, Inc”, once again), tried to ignore half the casts’ impenetrable American accents and steeled themselves not to storm the stage and strangle one of Chekov’s most irritating characters.

I’ve seen much better-directed Chekov plays than this (there was a fantastic – and probably definitive - Three Sisters at the National shortly before I started writing this blog) – and, admittedly, much worse (The Seagull, one of my first two or three reviews). This production just seemed to be a bit bland, a bit staid, and a bit lacking in depth, bite and ideas. Him Indoors wittered on about “naturalistic direction” – for which read “uninspired”. When I go to the theatre, I want to see something theatrical. And considerably better lit. For the scenes of the play which took place in the nursery, the stage was divided into alternate strips of darkness and light – presumably to represent the bars on the nursery windows and possibly the psychological prison in which most of the characters feel themselves trapped. Or something poncey like that. In practical terms, it just made the stage dingy and difficult to see.

Part of the problem, I feel, is that the character of Ranevksya is extremely unsympathetic, constantly maundering on about happy times long gone and seemingly unable to agree to an idea which has been handed to her on a plate and which would solve all her problems in one go. I’m sure many of the audience were, like me, wanting to shout “For crissakes, just sell the fucking orchard and have done with it!” while applying both my hands to her throat and banging her head repeatedly on the floor. Presumably it is an indication of Sinead Cusack’ skill as an actress that I felt this so strongly. My feeling wasn’t helped by Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lophakin, which seemed to have no “bite” whatsoever. Instead, we got the standard SRB portrayal of a shambling, avuncular, slightly camp apologist, forever wringing his hands, giggling and aspirating over everyone in the loud bits, nor by Selina Cadell’s bizarrely-accented governess (a seemingly completely irrelevant part, in my opinion). Of course, it might have been something to do with the translation by one T. Stoppard, Esq., who larded the text with phrases such as “Stop being such a noodle” – prove me wrong, but I’m sure no Russian ever said such a thing in 1904 – and smartarse Shakespeare misquotations such as “Get thee to a scullery”.

Apparently, in the first St. Petersburg production, the eponymous orchard was represented on stage, and audiences broke into cheers as the axes rang out. Sadly, this was rather how I felt myself, but contented myself with “accidentally” standing on the foot of a teenage girl who was holding up the exodus at the end by, at the top of the staircase and the top of her voice, telling her friends just how “awesome” Mr. Hawke had been.

New section! Theatre Geekery!
For your delectation and delight, and so that you can bore all your friends with your in-depth knowledge of theatre, I’ll now be including a couple of items of trivia about each show I review.

The Cherry Orchard is the only Chekov play in which a gun appears on stage but is not fired.

The first production opened in Moscow on 17th January 1904, Chekov’s last birthday (he died in June that year). It was directed by Constantin Stanislavski. Chekov hated it, considering it “under-rehearsed” – it was “only” in rehearsal for 6 months. Chekov’s wife played the lead.

What the critics thought:





1 comment:

Molly said...

Oh to be somewhere where where I'd have the option of attending a Chekov play, albeit underlit, directorially uninspired,and bland. Though I do agree that having forked over the not inconsiderable cash for live theatre, I'd be wanting to see something theatrical.....

It's possible the teenage jailbait might absorb a little appreciation for theatre just by being there, through their nails, perhaps? I'd have been there to see Ms Cusack's performance---which, I'm gathering, was not enough to redeem this whole experience?