With an ensemble featuring 20 actors, the Arcola’s splendidly ambitious Revolution season marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution began with Gorky’s 1902 play The Lower Depths and ends with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, first staged two years later. Although neither play is polemical, in both we seem to feel in the air the spirit of revolution, or at least social transformation. And though the Russian imperial state was not overthrown until 1917, the move towards constitutional reform began with the imminent revolution of 1905.
It may seem slightly perverse to mark this anniversary with two revivals not set in their historical period, but these modern-dress productions emphasize the plays’ contemporary resonances in our own time of uncertainty. Helena Kaut-Howson’s lively if overlong production of The Lower Depths didn’t quite capture an authentic sense of the desperation and anger behind Gorky’s sprawling dosshouse drama. The denizens there may be at the bottom of the social ladder compared with the gentrified folk on the country estate in The Cherry Orchard, but Chekhov’s protagonists are living on borrowed time.
After five years in Paris, Madame Ranevsky returns to a warm welcome at her estate, but the sweetness of homecoming is cut short as the reality of the family’s debt-ridden situation becomes clear. She, her brother and her two daughters have no future security. The upwardly mobile Lophakin, whose parents were peasants on the estate, advises her to chop down the famous cherry orchard and lease the land for holiday cottages but, in denial, she seems unable to move with the times as disaster looms.
This version of The Cherry Orchard by Trevor Griffiths, first staged in 1977 but seen here for the first time in London, highlights the play’s strong political undertow rather than the more traditional elegiac interpretation of the end of an era, without losing Chekhov’s sense of irony. Social change is at the heart of Mehmet Ergen’s stripped-back production which emphasizes the shifting dynamics between the characters. Iona McLeish’s uncluttered design of a white-painted tree spreading out of a tall bookcase has a ghostly quality, with a few items of furniture under dust sheets at the start and end of the play adding to the mournful effect.
Sian Thomas’s impetuous spendthrift Madame Ranevsky is less the usual grande dame than a ‘reckless and feckless’ child out of her depth in a suddenly insecure world. Holding hands in their leave-taking, she and her brother are almost like babes in the wood, with Jack Klaff lending a puzzled sadness to the benign, billiard-shot mumbling Gayev. Jade Williams is heart-breaking as the more pragmatic elder daughter Varya, who in a painfully awkward scene waits for an unforthcoming marriage proposal from the nouveau riche Lophakin, strongly played by Jude Akuwudike to show his progression from concerned deference to swaggering triumph.
Abhin Galeya’s rather priggish ‘eternal student’ is a socialist intellectual who prophesies the revolution to come but is not unsympathetic to those whom it will leave behind. Jim Bywater provides comic relief as a persistently sponging neighbour. The clownish Simon Scardifield is also very amusing as a tongue-tied, physically uncoordinated clerk who loses Lily Wood’s naïve maid to Ryan Wichert’s snobbish, champagne-swilling valet on the make. In contrast, Robin Hooper’s elderly loyal retainer cannot survive in the uncertain new world as the axe falls on the old society where everyone knew their place.
The Cherry Orchard is on at the Arcola until 25th March 2017. Click here for more details.