Royal Exchange, Manchester.
24 & 30 April
Although Rory Mullarkey’s sparkling translation of The Cherry Orchard is quite clearly a labour of love, he has no qualms about describing Chekhov’s final play as “weird”. It’s easy to see what he means. Set in a country house populated by an assortment of odds and sods, a sense of impending change weighs heavily but little seems to happen. It can feel dispiriting. Yet there are also comic eruptions and absurd pleasures to enjoy.
It begins with Ranyevskaya’s return to her Russian roots after a disastrous love affair in Paris and mostly revolves around her continuing refusal to accept that her beloved cherry orchard must be sold to save the family’s debt-ridden estate. The clock is ticking, but within the disparate household of relatives, friends and servants there is no sense of urgency. People are restless and distracted – characters traverse the stage laden with luggage, wander the countryside at dusk or party away while more crucial matters take place elsewhere.
Designer Tom Piper seems to have had a marvellous time creating a theatre in-the-round effect when the production opened at Bristol Old Vic and for the Bristolian audience that must have felt thrilling and very different. Such a feat of time and effort is of course not needed in Manchester, and within the familiar lay out and shape of the Exchange’s auditorium, Piper’s design interventions are more limited and lack impact. The stage occasionally revolves but it’s not clear why. Things are pared back – with plain wooden floors, the odd bit of furniture and moments of lovely birdsong. A flutter of white petals and a fistful of blossom signify the famous cherry orchard. While there can of course be beauty in simplicity, in this case the design is so understated it teeters at times towards lacklustre.
Fortunately, there are abundant pleasures elsewhere.
Rory Mullarkey’s translation is a breath of fresh air, blowing away any dust that might have accumulated over the many decades. Clear and contemporary in its language and rhythms, characters speak with a bracing directness, a bluntness even. “You’re quite something”. “Just keep your mouth shut”. Accident prone estate-clerk Yepikhodov is gifted the nickname ‘Captain Catastrophe’.
“You shouldn’t be watching plays, you should just look at yourselves a bit more often”, Ranyevskaya laments. Often the lighting is bright and strong, inviting you to glance over a character’s shoulder and see audience members opposite in fully illuminated detail. Here, Chekhov’s characters reach out across the years – not just to address us directly but to sit on the front row, hand over a guitar for safe-keeping or include us in a voice throwing trick. It’s not purely about a shared humanity, director Michael Boyd subtly emphasises the parallels between then and now, and brings new perspectives into view. A time of uncertainty, a society in flux, a mood of anger and also complacency. There and here. Almost imperceptibly the costumes evolve, as shirt ties loosen and dress sleeves shorten, from period appropriate to more contemporary styles. Strikingly, there is an unspoken but visible racial divide between the actors playing the family and those performing the roles of their servants and former serfs.
Ranyevskaya is haunted by the tragic death of her young son, and in Boyd’s production he is physically present within the household. It’s a highly effective device. Gleeful, not ghostly, he silently scampers across the stage, care free and mischievous – a constant poignant reminder of what his mother has lost.
Kirsty Bushell’s Ranyevskaya skippity-hops, swinging a purse of money carelessly around her head and exclaiming “laugh at me, I’m so silly”. And yet in the blink of an eye, she will also crumple into a sobbing heap, her face streaked with mascara as she falls distressed to her knees. Bushell shows a woman seemingly made manic by grief, almost simultaneously gripped by two moods. It’s a powerful performance, mirroring the play’s continuous unresolved pull between comedy and tragedy.
Ranyevskya’s only hope may well be shrewd landowner Lopakhin, a former peasant. Jude Owusu’s Lopakhin glows with pride at what he has achieved from his humble origins, but Owusu also invests him with an easy generous charm and emphasises his eagerness to do the right thing. Ultimately his efforts to help Ranyevskya are doomed and Owusu and Bushell skilfully sketch out a complex relationship where opportunities are wasted and so much goes painfully unsaid.
The Cherry Orchard shows a society that isn’t working, and its conclusion offers no easy answers or neat resolutions. While the world the production creates is a fragile and transitory one, the characters themselves possess a believable solidity and they speak with attention-grabbing immediacy. Boyd and Mullarkey have lovingly supercharged Chekhov’s play, and in doing so have made it both deeply satisfying and sharply relevant.
Images by Liam Bennett