Theater review: ‘The Cherry Orchard’ in London

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Reporting from London—For a theater critic, a week in London this summer is a week spent immersed in the classics. The biggest names, not surprisingly, are attached to the most familiar titles — Kevin Spacey in “Richard III,” Kristin Scott Thomas in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal.”

My theatergoing began with a jetlag-dispelling revival at the Royal Court Theatre of “Chicken Soup With Barley,” Arnold Wesker’s 1958 kitchen sink drama about socialist ideals and messy human realities. The production, which I’ll have more to say about in a later notebook, dusted off the years in much the same way as the National Theatre’s staging of “The Cherry Orchard” — by maintaining a laser-like attention to the struggles of characters trying to keep pace with historical changes that are mercilessly outrunning them.

Southern California audiences will have the chance to sample this politically heightened approach to Chekhov themselves when the NT Live broadcast of the production, which stars Zoë Wanamaker as a shamelessly self-dramatizing Ranyevskaya, will be shown on Thursday at participating venues (the Mann Chinese 6 and the Downtown Independent among them, with later dates elsewhere). Directed by Howard Davies with impressive clarity, this “Cherry Orchard” isn’t the most emotionally complex or philosophically resonant version. The focus, both in the interpretation and in Andrew Upton’s boldly explicit adaptation, is narrower.

Delicate layers of moodiness are more or less ignored as the relentless cycle of life shifts the balance of power from the aristocracy to the fed-up lower classes. Lopakhin, the self-made businessman with lowly origins who comes to buy Ranyevskaya’s debt-riddled estate, is played by Conleth Hill with more unmasked ambition than usual. It’s not that this clumsy entrepreneur who has descended from serfs has lost his self-deprecating humor and humble grace. But his boyhood affection for Ranyevskaya has been supplanted by the overwhelming adult desire to move out of steerage to the first-class car. Wanamaker’s portrayal, all privileged self-absorption and flamboyant, vain and utterly irresponsible noblesse oblige, doesn’t set out to seduce the audience. There is something distracted about this Ranyevskaya, whose heart and mind are evidently still in Paris with her wastrel lover, who is calling her back now that he is laid low. What’s striking is that her feeling for her beloved homestead seems largely sentimental, a vestigial attachment to the place where she grew up with her brother, Gaev (James Laurenson, playing the role with an Englishman’s velvety purr), married a man even more decadent than herself, lost a child in a tragic accident and eventually left to flee the shipwreck of her life.


Ranyevskaya has returned after a 10-year absence to find the estate threatened by bankruptcy, but she hasn’t the will to confront this crisis head-on. The first half of her existence is over, kaput. The second half is elsewhere. It’s an unthinkable situation, this loss of her bearings, yet all she can do is go through the motions of her grief, which has strangely taken on a ghostly aura. Change is inevitable, and Wanamaker slyly suggests that beneath Ranyevskaya’s theatrics of despair lies a longing for a clean break.

Bunny Christie’s entrancing design scheme of distressed wood and sparsely furnished rooms furthers this sense of a house that has outlived its usefulness. It’s a gorgeously atmospheric ramshackle, but as a shelter from the vicissitudes of the world it is conspicuously lacking.

It’s time to move on, as Petya Trofimov (a passionate Mark Bonnar) is the first to declare (in language that Upton renders with revolutionary exclamation marks). This eternal student who was the tutor of Ranyevskaya’s dead son preaches the gospel of social progress and the necessity of “intense, uninterrupted toil” to the lovely, impressionable Anya (Charity Wakefield), who must teach her mother the art of letting go with dignity as they both stare into the abyss of an uncertain future. But unlike Ranyevskaya or her adopted worrywart sister, Varya (Claudia Blakley), Anya has faith that another orchard can be planted with their newfound freedom to contribute to a more egalitarian Russia.

The lines of Davies’ production could hardly be clearer. This will no doubt rankle those who adore Chekhov for his infinite subtleties. My companion, a former professor of mine visiting England, was as impressed as I was with the lucidity of the acting, but he understandably felt that this “Cherry Orchard” was “more of a sketch than an oil painting.”

A beautifully executed pencil drawing is how I would characterize it. The palette, drained of color, is limited. But the shadings are nonetheless remarkably expressive. This may not be a Chekhov revival for the ages, but like the few classic remounts I’ve encountered thus far in my London theatergoing, it is undeniably alive for our time.


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--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty