DIRECTOR Michael Boyd and translater Rory Mullarkey have taken one of the best known and greatest plays in European literature and given it an extraordinary fresh energy and warmth in the new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, on at Bristol Old Vic until 7th April.
They have reconfigured the country’s oldest theatre into an in-the-round space that draws the audience into the whirlwind of the Ranyevskaya household. Part of the rationale is that this production is going on to Manchester Exchange, which is in-the-round. It also allows the grand old theatre – the new on-stage seating exactly mirroring the colour and design of the old auditorium – to become the much-loved grand old house looking out on the cherry orchard.
It works brilliantly – as does Mullarkey’s lively translation, and Boyd’s vision of this play, in line with Chekhov’s own description, as a comedy. It’s pretty bleak, but you laugh a lot.
I have one little criticism of the excellent translation – Mullarkey says he has hasn’t cut anything, but also that he has aimed for directness and clarity (absolutely). He could, usefully, have cut some of the multiple repeated endearments and diminutives, and the “my little darlings”.
There is an infectious warmth and vitality in Ranyevskaya herself (Kirsty Bushell) which I have never seen, in many previous productions. This woman is passionate, romantic, ridiculously generous – she is not callous and selfish, as she is often played. Everyone is a little bit in love with her, including, most importantly, the nouveau riche son/grandson of serfs, Yermolai Alekseyevich Lopakhin (Jude Owusu).
This is a performance that makes your head spin with the sheer force of energy unleashed every time he is on stage. Lopakhin is in constant movement, his arms windmilling his excitement, nervousness and frustration – he is (understandably) frustrated not only by his failure to make Ranyevskaya and her genial but foolish brother Leonid (Simon Coates) understand their situation, but also the concealed (perhaps unconscious) love he feels for his former master’s daughter, and not for her plain and serious step-daughter Varya (Rosy McEwen), whom everyone believes he will marry.
Boyd, who like Mullarkey is a Russian speaker, sees unrequited love as the tension that holds the play together, and that is painfully but also comically true here.
Every single character is clearly delineated with their flaws, foibles and emotions exposed – Anya (Verity Blyth), the wise loving daughter desperate to help her mother and uncle, Dunyasha (Emma Naomi) yearning for a genteel domestic life, Pischik (Julius D’Silva) borrowing money left and right, but genuinely intending to repay it, Petya (Enyi Okoronkwo) dreaming/planning for revolution, “Captain Catastrophe” (Jack Monaghan) falling over his vocabulary and his feet, and the magician-governess Charlotta (Eva Magyar and, temporarily, the hilarious “bearded lady,” Evan Lordan), a character who could have walked out of an Angela Carter novel.
The veteran Japanese actor Togo Igawa is a poignant Firs, the old retainer who has never understood the changed post-serfdom world, and Hayden McLean is certainly the nastiest Yasha I have ever seen – this is a handsome, ruthless Jack-the-lad who will batten on to the first older wealthy woman he sees in Paris. We know exactly what he has done as the curtain falls.
Boyd believes The Cherry Orchard is one of the world’s greatest plays. With this new translation-production, he and Mullarkey have certainly convinced me.