The Cherry Orchard – Royal Exchange

Royal Exchange Theatre - Harry Oliver (Grisha) - The Cherry Orchard. Image by Liam Bennett

Death, grief, loss, unrequited love, sex, abuse, poverty, class privilege, political change – The Cherry Orchard has it all. Yet Chekhov subtitles his play “A Comedy…”. The remarkable achievement of this new production is its deft navigation between the comedic and the tragic, maintaining a lightness of touch that belies, but never trivialises, its weighty themes. And, although there is a delicate, distant sense of foreboding, the predominant tone ranges from lively/amusing to poignant – and certainly never reaches heavy or dark.

Written and set in Russia just prior to the Revolution of 1905, the play takes place in a decaying country house belonging to to Ranyevskaya family. The house – and especially the cherry orchard it overlooks – represent very different things to the key characters. For Lyuba Ranyevskaya it is both the repository of idyllic childhood memories and the place where her young son tragically drowned. Having fled from this trauma five years earlier, she now returns to face her grief and to seek solace from the harsh realities of a profligate life in Paris and an abusive sexual relationship. Meanwhile, wealthy businessman, Lopakhin, sees the house as an uncomfortable reminder of his roots as the son of a serf family on the estate, and regards the cherry orchard as a mere obstacle to further financial opportunity. Determined to obliterate all remnants of past servitude, he sets his sights firmly on future prosperity, while Lyuba yearns only to return to a golden past. This tension drives the narrative, as Lopakhin tries to persuade Lyuba to solve her financial difficulties by selling the precious orchard.

This, in essence, is the ‘plot’– but The Cherry Orchard is not a plot-driven play. It is all about the internal, emotional narratives – and Michael Boyd’s sensitive direction, together with Tom Piper’s minimalist design, ensures that our focus is squarely on the characters. Lyuba is flighty, flirty and self-consciously ‘silly’, desperate to evade the responsibilities of maturity. Kirsty Bushell captures all of this beautifully, playing Lyuba with a child-like spring to every step, yet also subtly conveying her emotional complexity with glimpses into her underlying sorrow and neediness. Jude Owusu is also convincing as the determined and confident Lopakhin, whose self-assurance occasionally cracks to reveal a residual bitterness and vulnerability about his peasant origins. Again, there is complexity here – especially evident in his relationship with Lyuba. Striding purposefully around the stage in his sharp suits, Lopakhin repeatedly sets out the rational economic case for destroying the cherry orchard, while Lyuba floats and swirls and calls his plans ‘vulgar’. But then there’s the sub-text. Underneath all the oppositional substance of their exchanges is a palpable warmth, affection and sexual chemistry, injecting a further level of poignancy into both their relationship and the ultimate outcome.

Punctuating all the drama is, of course, a good degree of straightforward humour. Lyuba’s loquacious and self-important brother, Gayev (Simon Coates), happily stuffs his face with sweets, talks pompously to bookcases and has to be told repeatedly by his nieces to ‘be silent’. Meanwhile, the gawky estate clerk falls over both his words and any physical obstacle within his orbit. And monologues are suddenly interrupted by characters breaking the fourth wall and engaging with the audience. It is all rather charming, and a genuinely enjoyable watch.

The direction maintains an easy flow to the action, with a lightness of pace and movement that only slightly breaks down in the final act. And there are some inspired decisions – most notably the recurring, haunting presence of Lyuba’s dead 7-year-old son, Grisha, who opens and closes the play alongside the elderly manservant, both relics of a lost era. The sparse design and the gradual shift from traditional to contemporary costumes work very effectively to disengage the play from its historical context and emphasise the universality of the themes.

The Cherry Orchard may be a classic and much-performed play, written over a century ago, but what is striking about this production is how fresh it feels. Rory Mullarkey’s new translation is sharp, witty and natural. And, placing his trust in the writing and the performances, Michael Boyd allows the play to breathe and to speak for itself. Chekhov apparently hated the first production of his play because it over-emphasised the tragic themes. I think he would have thoroughly approved of this one.

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