Straight off the back of an impressively intense King Lear, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory have swapped playwrights for the second production of their 2012 season. This isn’t the first time the company have turned to Chekhov: Three Sisters sat beside Pericles in 2005, and in 2009 SATTF co-produced Uncle Vanya, doubly contradicting their own moniker by staging Chekhov at Bristol Old Vic. Now, though, they’re back on home turf with the Russian playwright’s last – and arguably greatest – play and, as with Lear, they go at it with not inconsiderable verve and an evident desire to push at The Cherry Orchard’s myriad ambiguities.
From the off, this production heeds Chekhov’s injunction that the play is a comedy and not – as Stanislavsky famously misinterpreted it – a tragedy. It’s almost shrill, in fact, as Paul Brendan’s guileless Yepikhodov and his insanely squeaky shoes retreat into the distance and Julia Hills’ Mme Ranevskaya and her entourage erupt into the somnambulant world of the family’s country estate – and into the equally somnambulant lives of those who’ve remained behind while the spendthrift widow has been enjoying the giddy delights of Paris. The mood quickly steadies, though, and from here on every well-timed gag in Stephen Mulrine’s supple and witty new translation is offset by a reminder of the underlying tragedies of these variously deluded, dysfunctional people. The sound of the axe blows demolishing the eponymous orchard with which the play closes echoes, as it were, beneath every bitter laugh.
Despite the claustrophobia of its provincial setting, The Cherry Orchard’s greatness lies in its dramatisation of huge social and political change through the story of the Ranevskaya household’s final months. While the aristocrats fritter their money away and spend more effort on hysterically protesting their doom than doing anything to avert it, Simon Armstrong’s masterly Lopakhin applies the unsentimental laws of capitalist economics and Benjamin O’Mahony’s ‘eternal student’ Trofimov (with scraggly beard and glasses, a spit for Italian communist Antonio Gramsci) preaches a sort of vague, revolutionary idealism. More than anything, what this beautifully nuanced production illustrates is that the play never allows its allegorical possibilities to swamp the individuality of the characters, nor does it weight our sympathies: Mme Ranevskaya, her logorrheic brother Gaev (Christopher Bianchi) and the rest of the old guard are both tragic and laughably – even despicably – feckless, while, in preaching progress, both Lopakhin and Trofimov are almost impossibly sentimental and self-involved. This, perhaps, is what makes the final act here so moving: it’s unclear whose tragedy it is – and because of that it becomes everyone’s.
In line with this pluralist approach, director Andrew Hilton allows each and every character their due, and there are pitch-perfect performances across the board. Both Hills and Armstrong excel as an exuberantly misguided Ranevskaya and steely-eyed Lopakhin respectively – Armstrong particularly in the scene where he returns drunkenly triumphant from the auction – while Bianchi makes for a gloriously absurd Gaev (his ‘bookcase’ speech is magnificently bonkers), Roland Oliver as Pishchik switches from fading bon viveur to money-grubber at the drop of a one-liner and Paul Nicholson as Firs is a brilliantly mumbling Methuselah or – as Viv Stanshall might have it – wrinkled old retainer. There’s much to relish too in O’Mahony’s sleeves-rolled-up Trofimov, Saskia Portway’s gun-toting, courgette-munching Charlotta, Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s exasperated Varya and Eleanor Yates’ naive but radiant Anya. In some ways, in fact, the palette’s too rich – it’s as if every scene contains another three or four which are playing out beneath the surface – but that’s hardly something to complain about and evidence that this is a production which would certainly repay a return visit. For once, the old cliché is true: the devil really is in the detail. And that concern for detail extends beyond the acting too. Harriet de Winton’s design has a sketchy opulence entirely suited to the decaying grandeur of the estate, while Elizabeth Purnell’s judicious sound plot acts as a constant reminder that what really determines these characters’ lives is what’s happening off-stage.
For anyone who thought Chekhov is the dry and boring stuff of academic papers and over-wrought method acting, SATTF’s The Cherry Orchard will be a revelation. For those who’ve always suspected that this is a play that somehow manages to range from broad sitcom to heart-wrenching tragedy, it will be an affirmation.
As an added bonus, audiences on Wednesdays and Fridays get a performance of Chekhov’s monologue ‘On the Evils of Tobacco’ (also newly translated by Stephen Mulrine) by Paul Brendan – as in Yepikhdov – and with its poignantly delivered satirical swipes at married life, that’s something worth hanging round for.