The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s final work written in 1903, marks the third and final piece in the Union Theatre’s “Essential Classics” season. In this new production directed by Phil Willmott, the play is set in 1917 and presents the complex dynamics of a family facing financial ruin in the midst of the social upheaval of the Russian revolution.
The cast coped well with the challenging layout that is the Union Theatre and, despite being a truly ensemble piece, the scenes never felt overcrowded or messy. This was helped by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s angular set design, which gave the illusion of a larger space and alluded to the family’s grand estate. I thought the very frugal use of props made a significant difference as well, such that the production didn’t fall into the trap of overusing props and set pieces as many productions set in this period do. This allowed for scenes that were visually distinct without the mess of unnecessary props.
Feliks Mathur successfully portrayed Bolshevik student Trofimov with vitality, and delivered his lines with a tongue-in-cheek shrewdness that acted as relief from some of the other characters’ lengthier speeches. Whilst Mathur was arguably the most engaging performer, Suanne Braun’s skilful portrayal of Ranyevskaya should not go unmentioned. I felt she paced the development of her character extremely well, as the audience is exposed to the varying extremes of Ranyevskaya’s complex manner. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the entirety of the play was when Braun stood alone on stage and took in her surroundings of her family home for one final time before it was sold at auction.
In terms of the piece as a whole, at just under two hours the cuts were certainly very noticeable, and at times some scenes felt a bit choppy. It is understandable why the piece has been abridged from its original four acts, but some moments didn’t quite work due to the lack of context around them. When so much of Chekhov’s genius is in the subtext of his plays, this was lost in places due to the condensed nature of the piece. For example, it was difficult to form an opinion on some of the more minor characters such as Charlotta, the governess and Pishchik, a neighbour of the family, since their scenes were very cut down. Additionally, the character of Pishchik was altered to portray an ex-ballerina, clinging onto the family by constantly borrowing money. I’m not sure of the reasons behind changing the gender of this character but nevertheless, I felt Caroline Wildi’s performance was an impressive one, revealing the ignorance of the aristocracy of the time.
One moment that I felt didn’t quite work was the auction scene; the cast suddenly began a sequence in which the company all had pieces of paper cover their faces and slowly raised their hands, symbolising the bidding of the house at the auction. When the rest of the play was done in a very naturalistic style, this sequence felt slightly out of place. Moreover, the dramatic fading spotlight on Christopher Laishley, playing the businessman Lopakhin, bordered on cheesy.
Aside from certain moments that didn’t quite fit and some issues with the sound balance, the piece overall was enjoyable and conveyed the key social issues extremely well. The connections between the text written over 100 years ago and issues of today are also surprisingly apparent. In a play that depicts the younger generations taking a stand for the future and overturning traditional ways of life, it felt particularly significant watching this play amidst nationwide school walkouts in the USA, protesting against gun violence in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The fact that a play about revolutionary Russia still strikes a chord in the social climate a century later, speaks to Chekhov’s genius as a social commentator as well as a playwright.