Theatre Review: The Cherry Orchard @ Bristol Old Vic
by Alice Lacey
Michael Boyd’s new production of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, recently translated by Rory Mullarkey, perfectly captures the distinctive Chekovian mood of piercing sadness and wild humour.
Premiering in 1904, a mere 12 years before the Russian Revolution, The Cherry Orchard follows Madam Lyubov Ranyevskaya, a Russian landowner as she returns to her family home just as her estate (complete with a vast cherry orchard) is about to be auctioned off by local businessman, Yermolai Lopkahin to pay for family debts. Not only does the prospect of an uncertain future hang, spectre-like, over Lyubov, but so does the past. This is the place where her seven-year-old son drowned. Whilst for Lyubov, the loss of her beloved cherry trees represents (amongst other things) the passing of her youth, the loss of her son, happiness and love, for others; in particular, Yermolai (now the wealthy son of a family serf) ceasing control of the orchard represents the dawning of a new era of freedom and profound social change.
Numerous modern translations of what is commonly called “The greatest play ever written” have historically littered the bins of a number of well-known playhouses; having cringingly attempted to make a script dating back to 1900’s Russia, “hip” and “contemporary” whilst simultaneously stripping the emotion and core essence of the period within which it is set.
Mullarkey’s script, however, strives for “directness and clarity” (his own words). As such, it is a gloriously inventive reimagining that wrings the grief from the original, transforming it into a gently heartbreaking study of landscape and loss - in all its bittersweet guises.
"This is a beautifully executed production – from the script, to the cast, to the costumes and set design – and just works."
Critically, although the characters speak in modern dialect, it is done so subtly that the specifics of Chekhov’s period are beautifully preserved - but with a fluidity and naturalness that makes the production both incredibly relatable and easy to engage with.
Kirsty Bushell as the doomed landowner Luybov is a triumph. Her natural, breathy delivery and the physicality of her performance (one moment twirling about the stage, the next crumpled in a tear strewn heap on the floor) truly epitomises naturalistic method – a concept developed by Chekov’s good friend Stalinavski. Indeed, Bushell heart wrenchingly captures the character’s mixture of reckless frivolity (at times seen necking back the Stolichnaya with delightful abandon) and sudden moments of piercing guilt and grief as she thinks of her drowned son who, literally haunts the stage, clothes soaked in lake water, capturing her gaze even during the wildest of house parties. It is lovely to see the rigidity of past performances of this role be cast by the wayside with such aplomb.
Jude Owusu as Lopakhin | Photo by Jon Rowley
Credit must also be given to Jude Owusu as Yermolai. As a character that is, in the main, meant to represent the future, the beginnings of social change and the breakdown in entrenched hierarchy, his vernacular is notably the most ‘modernised’ of the ensemble, but delivered with such confidence and panache that it doesn’t seem overtly obvious or out of place. Equally, Owusu beautifully conveys the mixture of affection and exasperation with which Yermolai regards the fated aristocratic family thus ensuring he remains a sympathetic character - despite his role as “chief evictor”.
Recognition must also be given to Simon Coates who is both funny and affecting as Lyubov’s verbose, fantastical brother Leonid, constantly keeping reality at bay with long-winded speeches whilst relative new comer, Rosy McEwen is almost unbearably poignant as Lyubov’s adopted, stanchly clothed daughter Vavara, who brims with unrequited love, waiting desperately for a marriage proposal which never quite arrives.
There are also other comic turns in small roles, from Eva Magyar as the mysterious, misplaced governess-cum-circus act, and Julius D’Silca as Boris; the boorish, money hungry neighbour.
Ultimately, there are no weak links here and as such, I could reel off hyperboles for another three paragraphs, but I’ll spare you the legwork. In short, this is a beautifully executed production – from the script, to the cast, to the costumes and set design – and just “works”. Having been lucky enough to have seen a number of Chekov plays (I am admittedly, rather a fan), this has to be the most engaging, truest performance I have seen to date and one that I am still pondering over 24 hours later. That, for me, is the sign of a truly good afternoon out at the theatre. Trust me, go buy a ticket and enjoy. You won’t be sorry.
Buy tickets here.