Anton Chekhov’s 1903 play The Cherry Orchard centres on an aristocratic landowning family as the matriarch, Mrs Ranvesky, returns from her bohemian life in Paris to the family’s estate in rural Russia. She reunites with a variety of local characters and her two daughters, Anya and Varya. We soon discover, however, that the family is in fact penniless, and that their only way out is through the sale of the estate they hold so dear.
Four Seven Two’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the Keble O’Reilly transports the play from early twentieth century Russia to rural 1920s America. The director Ross Moncrieff emphasises the links between the periods in the programme. Chekhov was writing The Cherry Orchard as Russia drew closer to political upheaval – only one year after the play’s opening did Russia see an attempt at revolution (1905). The parallel of looming disaster transfers well in this production, with the sense of imminent financial turmoil from the Great Depression foregrounded as Mrs Ranevsky (Tara Kilcoyne) hands out ruble notes across the stage nonchalantly.
Crucially, this production is interested in class divides. Mrs Ranevsky and her family represent Russia’s landed aristocracy, which Chekhov depicts as respectable but irrelevant, fixated by sentimental ideas of what they used to be. Lopakhin (Jon Berry), by far the wealthiest character in the play, is the son of a serf and thus representative of new money. Hanna Høibø’s costume excels here. Lopakhin is dressed in an all white suit and pristine shoes that can only be newly bought, a clear reference to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
But Chekhov also indulges the audience with a comic subplot concerned with the estate’s workers – the flirtatious Dunyasha (Kayla Kim) and the endlessly clumsy Yepikhodov (Tom Saer). Mrs Ramesky’s arrival brings her cheeky manservant, Yasha (Gavin Fleming) into the mix. The three engage in a seemingly light love triangle, which in actuality reveals the unsatisfying and imprisoning lifestyle of the lower classes when Dunyasha is left heartbroken and deserted by Yasha at the play’s end.
That being said, what Moncrieff brings to the forefront in his production is a society that suffers not only with divisions across classes, but also across generations – the old servant Firs (Lee Simonds) is physically doubled over whilst Anya (Lara Deering) prances around in the arms of Trofimov (Christopher Page), both emblems of youth. Such great division between individuals means that effective communication is a constant difficulty. Firs’ reflections are classed as ‘mutterings’ and Gayev is repeatedly silenced by his nieces.
What we do hear above all is the jazz band, a highlight of the production, led by music director Josh Cottell. The outstanding score means that transitions are smooth and sophisticated, and the audience gains a way of actualising the distinct modernity of 1920s America in musical form. As each instrument in the small band seeks to be heard individually whilst functioning in a larger collective, so do the voices of Chekhov’s characters. Each character appears to speak in a kind of soliloquy despite being in the company of others, slipping off unheard into nostalgic tangents in Mrs Ramesky or Firs’s case, or into intense political ranting in the case of Trofimov.
In terms of performance, I was particularly impressed by Alma Prelec as Varya. The Keble O’Reilly is a big space that requires a commanding stage presence, and Prelec demands the audience’s sympathy whilst simultaneously communicating Varya’s repressive and neurotic nature. Equally, Jon Berry stood out as a dignified and considered Lopakhin, and captured perfectly at the play’s end his character’s remaining imposter syndrome despite gaining the sought after land. Ariel Levine also commanded audience attention through his detailed yet entertaining characterisation of Pishchik.
One aspect of the performance that was somewhat disappointing, however, was the actors’ volume – for a play in which silence is as frequent as dialogue, a difficulty hearing what the actors were saying at times meant that some important words or even lines were lost. Moncrieff and his team’s production is thoroughly ambitious and contains some sophisticated performances. Whilst it is a shame that volume meant certain elements were lost, this production offers many poignant moments, all underscored by great music.
Running Tues 13 – Sat 17 Feb