by Anton Chekhov (translated by Stephen Mulrine): Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
IT’S OFFICIAL: those who accuse Chekhov’s plays of being dreary and devoid of plot are wrong.
Packed into two hours, Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, portrays the tensions of a rapidly changing Russia, unable to avoid modernisation; a collapse in the power of nobility and its consequences; an expanding middle-class of liberated serfs; profound, passionate characters and… humour.
In contradiction to the playwright’s intention, the original 1904 director, Stanislavski (yes, that Stanislavski) decided to interpret the play as a tragedy. Although debate continues about defining the play as tragedy or comedy, SATTF director Andrew Hinton believes that both can exist together.
The tragedy is the fall of the old ruling order and the defiance by some to acknowledge this. Memory stalls the progress of matriarch Mme Ranevskaya (Julia Hills) and Uncle Gayev (Christopher Bianchi) who linger on the past. Peasant turned self-made businessman, Lopakhin, explains with arm flailing desperation their financial predicament; their options either converting the estate and its titular cherry orchard or selling up. Simon Armstrong dominates the space as the apparent family saviour, the voice of reason, before turning gleeful avenger, securing the property on which his own family was once the suffering serf.
Julia Hills gives the fragile and erratic Mme Ranevskaya a fizziness that hides a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The moment she sees her dead son’s Tutor her distress is palpable. Hills is sensitive and graceful, emanating a child-like spirit, despite at times slipping into an imitation of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous.
The comedy (including some slapstick falls) comes from the diverse characters and the cultural clash of old and new orders. Student Trofimov, with a considered performance from Benjamin O’Mahony, exhorts the value of work in contrast to the leisurely and snooty Gayev. Trofimlov is a stoic idealist, while Gayev absurdly mimes playing billiards with idle disdain. The aging Pischik (Roland Oliver) is the eternal optimist and mischievous scrounger; Firs is the dithering and mumbling old manservant, played with gentle warmth by Paul Nicholson; and Yepikhodov (Paul Brendan) is the lovesick accident-prone clerk complete with squeaky shoes.
Standout performance comes from Dorothea Myer-Bennett whose wonderfully layered Varya suppresses pain and powerlessness behind feigned smiles and longing eyes. Myer-Bennett evokes a veil of bubbling emotion as Varya lives her own tragedy; completely in the arms of fate, her future depends on the cherry orchard estate and a possible marriage proposal from Lopakhin.
The Tobacco Factory’s stark staging is a fitting allegory for the crumbling aristocratic affluence. There’s nothing ostentatious here, just the odd symbols, such as a bookcase, of a once materialistic shallowness
As the lights dim to the sound of the woodman’s axe Andrew Hinton’s production leaves us pondering with which of the wonderfully layered Chekhov’s character’s we should empathise.