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FringeReview UK 2017

The Cherry Orchard

Arcola Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedic, Drama, International, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre, Studio 1


Low Down

With the London premiere of Trevor Griffith’s version of The Cherry Orchard, this is the second of Arcola director Mehmet Ergen’s Russian Revolution diptych, following Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Iona McLeish this time provides a starkly simple set. David Howe’s lighting colouring scenes to more than usual effect. Neil McKeown’s sound swaps Glinka’s Trio with a fuller Klesmer, axing and the important cable-snap. Till March 25th.


This is the second of Arcola director Mehmet Ergen’s Russian Revolution diptych, featuring Gorky’s The Lower Depths and here The Cherry Orchard, echoing the National’s Young Chekhov season, indeed featuring a member of that cast, Jade Williams as an unforgettable Varya. We’re treated to a miniature repertory as the two dramas play sequentially with the smallest of breaks: The Cherry Orchard commences four days after The Lower Depths closes.


This is the London premiere of Trevor Griffith’s already-praised version from Helen Rappaport’s translation: unobtrusively close to Chekhov, without trendy updates, though with needless if minor name alterations.


Neil McKeown’s sound swaps Glinka’s Trio with a fuller Klesmer, axing and the important cable-snap. Iona McLeish this time provides a starkly simple set where the chairs underneath the covers are as white, as is the curiously Ikea-white bookcase alive with a blanched cherry tree rooting up through it dead and blossoming like winter above.


We get the picture, David Howe’s lighting colouring scenes to more than usual effect. Even if a modern yellow toy car is bustled away in the capacious bookcase (confusingly to point up a dead son’s banished haunting?) and again Emma Marguerite Lynch dresses her characters in 1903, often stylishly. Nevertheless yet again it’s as if a charity shop ran out of period costumes. Anya wears jeans at the end; Charlotte sports Californian rainbow promenaderie. It’s 1903; Jack Klaff’s Gayev tells us, marking the Ikea bookcase’s centenary. It’s as if someone’s anxious we might not grasp relevance.


The energy of this intimate space though sweeps palpably in: Sian Thomas’ heedless, giddy but suddenly acute Mme Ranevsky wheels wide arcs and never quite stops except for these moments – with palpable stillness. Her wrong-footing’s a sublime blather. She blusters adopted daughter-housekeeper Varya into giving away their last kopek, but displays blinding insight into her dead son’s ex-tutor, eternal student Tofimov: Abhin Galeya’s weedily gauche, seedily inexperienced. He skirts absurdity with a blistering prophetic intelligence that accidentally wins the joyful Anya, a radiant Pernille Broch whom Trofimov patently doesn’t deserve and never claims.


Galeya’s keen portrayal never guys Trofimov: his slightly brattish assumptions towards Lopakhin aren’t unkindly: it’s important there’s valedictory warmth, even if the penniless Trofimov can’t accept Lopakhin’s money.


That Ranevsky’s fled from a blood-sucking lover whom she’ll return to, to face the sale of her estate, and ignores the kindly pleas of serf-stock millionaire Lopakhin, frames every mistaken duet or triangle that follows. Besotted with her, Jude Akuwudike’s clear head and befuddled heart echoes the general temperature: some wholly bemused, all though possessed by a stab of self-knowing. It’s equally a tragedy of awakening as much as sleep-walking into the twentieth century.


Akuwudike’s Lopakhin should prophesy this in his dignified, occasionally uproarious letting-go: he exudes strangulating restraint. It’s over the oblivious Ranevksy, and not, as she urges, Varya. But Lopakhin’s fitter for Russia’s twenty-first than its twentieth century. Would Revolution or purges claim him? It’s a question one asks of each character after this production: exilic survival, or a grim future Trofimov couldn’t prophesy.


The cheery orchard it sometimes is though. There’s humour touching cruelty in Ergen’s characters, with the elbow room for them to barge into each other. The slapstick haplessness of Simon Scardfield’s fidgety balding clerk Epikhodov with his hopeless love for Lily Wood’s pert flirty maid Dunyasha pulls more pathos than a Chaplin without talent, hope, even the courage to end it, despite flourishing a gun. Even more phallically his mandolin strap breaks: he can’t play it, though Ryan Wichert’s cocky disdainful but not sadistic Yasha can, even with Epikhodov attached. Wichert and Wood convey explicit sexual chemistry but this Yasha’s more opportunistic than calculating; as when he puts his hand on Ranevsky’s knee which she shrewdly, slowly brushes off. She understands.


Klaff’s Gayev, Mme Ranevsky’s equally twitchy brother is thus fated to the higher haplessness of the superfluous man, with a sudden cold awakening that his centenary speech and much else is absurd. Klaff’s garrulous white-noise arc as he mimics putting away the black billiard ball repeatedly, isn’t Asperger’s exactly, he’s too humanely engaged; nor is it quite Tourette’s. Chekhov who knew a thing about conditions never allows us to medicalise Gayev‘s muted angst. Klaff invests him with faded nobility blinded with radiant shafts of self-knowledge, even redemption, ending as a clerk like Epikhodov.


Jim Bywater’s scrounging Pischick (descended we learn from Caligula’s horse) equally straddles irritating bathos and sudden generous redemption, Bywater’s essential warmth making everything good with English money. A rung further down, eager to root in his banished serfdom, Robin Hooper’s forgetful Firs waywardly displays fragilities we know will overwhelm him. Again, essential distraction dominates. Though in palpably early dementia, this Firs fusses in a rapture of distress, recalling what must have been an energetic servility.


Charlotte too twitches with reflexes of an earlier role, absorbing the recently-dead Nanny’s smother, in Baris Celiloglu’s distrait if colourful displacement activity for living. Nick Voyla’s Stranger is more Southbank beggar with attitude, faux-threats presaging upheaval.


This episode is the avatar of the sudden cable-snapping we hear, audible if somehow not mystery-inducing. More plangently the Jewish orchestra’s music swirls in with other revellers where somewhat out of character everyone’s adept at dancing. Ergen manages moments of stasis around the frantic over-compensation of such wild eddies, and its centrifugal pull defines the thrust of this production.


It displays some heart too: Trofimov’s heedless sway with Anya, Lopakhin’s mute adoration of Ranevsky so acute that only she in her snobbery could fail to notice everything he does is displaced love, the cherry orchard or dutifully failing to propose to Varya.


It’s Varya on whom the needle of tragedy pivots, in Williams’ defining, hard-bitten blight of a role, beyond any lemon-sucking. Having seared her way through The Seagull’s Masha, Williams’ Varya switches from frustratedly berating nearly everyone, to a just-contained abyss. As Akuwudike dutifully fails to propose –physically as far-off as possible, never getting close – you see Varya crumple. Most of us would want to rush onstage and hug her; and be roundly kicked. Williams chokes back tears, her face clenched in grief but mobile as Akuwudike’s Lopakhin squirms away with weather-talk and the chill October invades her forever.


Arcola productions pride themselves in bare-brick refusals to produce grand definitives of classics, going for the exposed heart. There are moments even this production’s pathos doesn’t reach with its engaging bustle, and few can match Williams or indeed Scardfield in their assigned misery, Thomas’s giddiness or Galeya’s faceted fool. Nevertheless a joyful sadness more nearly than most strikes the balance Chekhov mockingly prescribes: a comedy, grasping a clutch of infernos.