Michael Boyd’s production of The Cherry Orchard starts with clowns – a child and an old man, peaking out through the red curtain, playing with the audience. This instant sense of playfulness continues into the first scene, when the clowning pair run off and the curtain draws back. Jude Owusu’s Lopakhin talks easily to us – to the audience on every side as Tom Piper’s design reflects the circles of the auditorium on the stage itself, joking and off-hand. There are squeaky shoes and perfectly timed awkward dialogue.
By the end of the first half, the play is nothing like this farcical beginning. The pain that the characters open up feels raw and real and it feels quieter than silent in the auditorium as they draw out threads of class and race, inheritance, privilege and possession. Both the clowns of the beginning and the fierce, broken people of the end felt like they were sharing with us openly, creating a shared world rather than drawing us into theirs or barrelling into ours. These two opposing moods created a valuable tension in the play, perhaps best seen when the absurd Boris searches for his money in a way that’s ridiculous, but also has such a desperation that there’s little laughter in an otherwise lively audience.
The heights reached by both the comic and the tragic, however, do occasionally mean the sections that are neither fall a little flat. This especially happens with large ensemble scenes when the intensity of the performances (which were universally strong) felt diluted into something a little closer to just saying the lines, without the commitment to the ridiculous or sublime seen elsewhere. Similarly, when the performers spend so much time acknowledging the audience, it feels a little odd when characters tell each other what they obviously already know when a slight tilt of the head would turn them towards us.
Despite this, Michael Boyd’s direction and Rory Mullarkey’s translation do well to make a classic play gripping and relevant. The translation emphasised the themes of possession in the play – everything is ‘my room’ or ‘my daughter’ or ‘my love’ – and Boyd successfully marries the atmosphere of privilege to race as well as class. I can sometimes be wary of directors trying to forcefully inject relevance into classic texts, rather than grappling with the complex modern world in the way that a new play can, but this version of The Cherry Orchard manages to feel like it is saying something fresh (if not groundbreaking) about issues that have faced society since the play was written, and well before it too.
This is possibly a production that does a little too much, not allowing any one mood to grip hold into the audience, but perhaps that’s perfect for such a complex play – my friend saw it as all about madness, something I completely missed, and the scene changes were used beautifully to show how the characters are haunted by their pasts. It is worth seeing for the constellation of brilliant moments, even if the journeys between them aren’t always smooth.
The Cherry Orchard is on at Bristol Old Vic until 7th April. Book tickets here.