Anton Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard opened at the Albery Theatre earlier this week. The play runs until the 25th January and hopes to attract a much wider crowd than usual. The director has chosen to highlight the subtle comedy of the sombre play overlooked in past productions, without jeopardising the gravity of the play’s tragic plot or the loyalty of impassioned Chekhov connoisseurs.
As the performance continues the accumulation of emotion is portrayed in an energetic and ever-changing way. The actors each maintain their character’s basic traits and emotional state whilst allowing themselves to be influenced by the feelings of the other characters, thus creating certain periods of false hysteria in a diverse and skilful way. Ranyevskaya’s emotional instability is represented with faultless accuracy by Penelope Wilton, and the blasé snobbery of Gayev more than evident in relation to David Troughton’s performance of working class, self-made entrepreneur, Lopakin. Troughton captures the characteristics of the low-centred man effortlessly.
The scene often thought of as the halfway mark of the play, where old and new ways of life surround the characters as they sit around a park bench, was carried out in a quiet and reflective way. From this point forward the format of the performance takes on an eerie juxtaposition of sentiment, especially during the informal gathering for the auctioning of contents from the grand yet antiquated family home.
A minimalist set with only simple props to establish each scene did not hinder the progression of those latter scenes as expected. The use of quiet music throughout the production became almost unnoticed until it ceased to successfully create a sense of emptiness. A stunning use of theatrical mechanics to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The production ended with a power rarely experienced at the theatre. The family’s old aged butler, Firs (Peter Copley), who throughout had been essential to the certain retention of sanity, was forgotten. The desperate yet not embittered cries and footsteps that echoed through the auditorium chilled the audience, as the fine actor displayed the hurt caused by the betrayal.
Even after subjecting such an authoritative work to high-risk fine-tuning—as to not bore a West End audience—the production was beyond superb. This interpretation of the text spawns complete empathy for the fictional family and a troubled Russia, for which the play is a shameless metaphor. A theatrical phenomenon.
The Cherry Orchard runs from 21st November until 25th January at The Albery Theatre in London.
A review for The Guardian newspaper, November 1996