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Friday, 20 May 2011

Cherry Orchard at The National, Olivier Theatre

‘The Cherry Orchard’ is Anton Chekhov’s final play, and has become one of his most familiar. Translated many times over, it is now regarded to be a classic all over the world. When I arrived for the first night of the National’s new production of the play I was aware that I was in the minority, having not seen this play performed before. The work is lengthy, as is much of Chekhov, and with very little storyline it is easy to get lost in the words and endless speeches, I felt quite dazed by the end. It doesn’t help that the character names are so difficult to distinguish to untutored ears.

We were lucky to be sitting in good central circle seats that only cost £5 each, thanks to the National’s brilliant entry pass scheme, and could see the huge stage well. The wooden set is simple but stunning and alludes perfectly to a picturesque Russian country estate. Aside from aesthetics, designer Bunny Christie has managed to create a real atmosphere and character with her insightful vision.

Ranyevskaya, a Russian aristocrat arrives back at her family home with her relatives and friends. The house includes a large and well-known cherry orchard that holds many memories for the family members. Unfortunately the land must be auctioned to pay off a mortgage debt. The family do very little throughout the play, talking about the importance of love and life and wandering about aimlessly or having a party. The property is eventually sold to the wealthy landowner, and the family leave to the devastating sound of the orchard being chopped down.

Zoe Wanamaker is the star appeal as glamorous Ranyevskaya, lady of the house, and on opening night she was truly worthy of her status. Wanamaker sweeps the stage with such charm that you can’t help but smile. Her features are quite similar to a cabbage patch doll, and there is something particularly endearing about her expressive face. Confident and assured, she gives a wonderful performance, at times hysterical. She is surrounded on stage by a brilliant cast; an excitable Charity Wakefield as the beautiful younger daughter Anya and Claudie Blakley, who is perfectly prim as the fastidious adopted daughter Varya. Of the smaller parts, it is Sarah Woodward that really stands out as jovial performer Charlotta.

Whether to define ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as a comedy or tragedy often causes debate, and it is a decision each director can determine in their portrayal. The final saddening moments of the National’s production reflect the overall contemplative feeling of the show, as we watch the poor old man struggle alone whilst everyone else has left the house and cherry orchard behind.

Cherry Orchard continues until July 28, book here.

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