'What's past is prologue' Act II, Scene I, The Tempest
For those unfamiliar with Chekhov’s gun principle, Chekhov stated that one cannot set up false expectation on stage. If a gun appears, one knows that it has to go off: the playwright cannot make false promises. The Cherry Orchard, at the Bristol Old Vic, for me, does not deliver what it promised. The surface tension made quite visceral in the first act does not amount to the dramatic finish that the text, or in-fact, the reputation of the company, promises. By the end I didn’t really care that the orchard had been lost, and I wasn’t convinced that the majority of the characters did either. The Cherry Orchard- a central metaphor for lost time, desire, and the inescapability of the past- seems to lose its value for the characters in the second act. The play loses its core. This isn't just because it feels like there is no fusion between the sets of characters but because something is lost in translation from Chekhov’s original. In fact, the end of the play is unconvincing, and therefore I couldn’t help but think that the atmospheric fade out of the orchard trees being chopped down sounded like an ominous wooden leg.
Kirsty Bushell plays the careless Mrs Lyuba Ravensky well: always slightly too bright, manner too brittle, compensating for the recent loss of her son, who drowned in a lake on the grounds of her estate. The Cherry Orchard, part of the estate which has sustained Ravensky’s family for years, has to be mortgaged in order to pay off the debt the aristocrats have accumulated over the years. Money, after all, does not grow on trees. Her debts have also amounted due to her reckless spending in Paris, to which she escaped after the death of her son, leaving her two daughters Anya (Verity Blyth) and Varya (Rosy McEwen) to keep house with the odd servant Firs (Togo Igawa) for a few years. Escape is therefore important in such a confined atmosphere. It’s evident in the language that the death of Lyuba’s son’s is inescapable; we keep waiting for someone or something to collapse as the characters verbally propel themselves forward, trying not to snag themselves on the past. Yet the boy is given a presence on stage; he climbs out of a cupboard holding cherry blossom and appears for the audience during a magic trick. Michael Boyd’s directorial choice perhaps undercuts the nuances of Chekhov’s text; although there is a particularly poignant moment when the boy appears Le Ballon-rouge style with a white balloon when his mother says she can see the moon, it’s just not necessary, and undermines Chekhov’s subtleties. The whole point is that the silence on the topic is suffocating.
Lyuba’s loss of her son only exacerbates her fear of losing the orchard. The family’s obsession with money is corrosive; it is omni-present: even when Mrs Lavensky places a candle by her son’s memorial, the money bag is a bruise by her side. When her coins fall everywhere one can either empathise with her helplessness or feel disgust as she falls to the ground to scrabble after them. She is left on a knife-edge of anxiety; she says she is sinking, significantly paralleling her symbolic drowning with the real death of her son. Her various life-buoys take the forms of Lopakhin (Jude Owusu), son of a former serb, who in the snakiest act of the late 1800s eventually buys the orchard, Gayev her brother (Simon Coates), and the money-hungry Simeyonov-Pischik played by Julius D'Silva. There is a particularly good scene at the beginning where we see Mrs Ravensky toy with each of them, exploiting the little bit of power she has over the men. It would have been nice to have seen more of this; Bushell’s performance seems less convincing as the play progressed.
Although commonly known as a tragedy, the Cherry Orchard is a surprisingly humorous play. Boyd recognises that, and handles the humour skilfully. Simon Coates as Gayev particularly stands out with his habit of rambling and witty asides which highlight Chekhov’s linguistic skill. Drawing attention to the vacuity of the upper-classes’ oration, his stage presence is welcome amongst the other relationships at play. All of the actors act well, but that – as confusing as it may sound- is the play's problem; the play feels fine, but I didn’t leave the theatre worrying about the relationships which fall outside the immediate issue of the auctioned orchard. I was more confused with why the play closes with the dead son mirroring the actions of servant Firs, who drags himself quite absurdly onto one of the moving boxes and dies more slowly than I would have liked.
The rotating stage is a nice touch, particularly because the stage is in the round and so it allows the actors’ faces to be seen by everyone, but also because it provides a restlessness which adds to the underlying tension of the play. It is also interesting to note when the stage stands still. It halts rather tellingly when the tutor Trofimov, played by Enyi Okoronkwo, powerfully speaks of the injustice of society. As a seeker of truth, he rails against the inequality between the classes. Such disparity is sustained by the existence of the orchard, as it was previously worked on by slaves and the lower-class serbs. Anya later exposes her superficial nature by accusing Trofimov of being ugly and old; the others also try to humiliate him as he represents the future and progression which they fear, as it means their own dissolution.
A pervading motif is that of the ladder which stands to the side of the stage, as if a misplaced from the orchard. This idea of escape thus hangs perpetually throughout the play; a line which endures is ‘there’s a way out’, because just like Chekhov’s gun, it creates a false promise. I thought this set choice was very effective as a reminder of the trap the upper class Ravensky family creates for itself as the characters live blindly behind the walls of the orchard. They remain oblivious to the change outside, to which they must adapt if they want to survive. The play itself is good, but this performance just felt lacking. Cherry trees are rarely in season; most of them only grow every two years. Sadly, this production of The Cherry Orchard just isn’t ripe yet.
Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor