This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and the Arcola Theatre has put on a ‘Revolution‘ season to mark this. Its current production is Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The Russian Revolution refers to the February and October Revolutions of 1917, which eventually led to the axing of Tsarist Russia and the creation of the Soviet Union – it famously also led to the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and the rest of the Imperial family. The Bolsheviks, made up primarily of working class socialists and headed by Vladimir Lenin, rose up and took control of the country, paving the way for Stalinist Russia.
Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard in the early 1900s (it was first performed in January 1904), basing some elements on his own personal experiences. It’s remarkable how many parallels there are between this work and the Russian Revolution, despite it being written even before the failed revolution in 1905 – deemed by some to be a key catalyst for the later, successful, revolution.
It tells the story of Mme Ranevsky, the aristocratic owner of a large estate who has fallen into serious debt. She has spent many years away from her home, but returns with her brother Gayev and daughter Anya just before the estate (including its large and historic cherry orchard) is put up for auction; the only way to save it is for the family to pay off the interest due. To the consternation of her adopted daughter, Varya, Mme Ranevsky continues to spend money she doesn’t have and goes ahead with a planned party that happens to be on the same day as the auction. Gayev and Lopakhin (the now wealthy son of a former serf) are delayed in their return, leaving everyone in suspense over the estate’s fate…
This production uses a version by Trevor Griffiths (from a translation by Helen Rappaport). As this is the first version of this play I’ve seen, I wasn’t familiar with the story (aside from the central plot about the sale of the estate) and a few elements are a little confusing for the first-time viewer. Firstly, I don’t remember it being mentioned that Varya is adopted – and secondly the talk of the clerk proposing to Dunyasha (the housemaid) is confusing when we finally meet Epikhodov, as it’s unclear that he is the clerk. Charlotte’s presence is also unexplained – she is, in fact, Anya’s governess. Other than these slightly misleading moments, the story is quite clearly told.
Iona McLeish’s set design is quite stark, the thrust stage consisting mostly of a white bookshelf through which a large white cherry tree protrudes. We are never allowed to see the cherry orchard itself, despite it being the focus of Mme Ranevsky’s worries, so by having this construction onstage at all times the matter is kept firmly in our minds. Neil McKeown’s sound design is especially effective when the play comes to its conclusion, surrounding the auditorium with sound – almost like the vultures circling.
Some distracting stumbling over lines aside, there are some great performances from the cast of 13 (made up of members of the Revolution Ensemble). Simon Scardifield as the clumsy Epikhodov provides some light relief in his efforts to woo Dunyasha and his inability to not break something. Abhin Galeya portrays believable revolutionary fervour as the perennial student Trofimov, and Robin Hooper is both humourous and moving as the infirm manservant Firs. The standout performance, however, comes from Sian Thomas in the central role, particularly some affecting scenes as Mme Ranevsky talks about the losses she has suffered in her life.
My verdict? A solid production, showing that Chekhov’s work continues to have relevance today – it just needs to be clearer in some places.
The Cherry Orchard runs at Arcola Theatre until 25 March 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.