This orchard bears fruit: The Cherry Orchard at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 18th February 2017, matinée

We are always keen to see another Chekhov to add to our collection, and the Arcola is the perfect venue, small and with an excellent track record.  Add in a version by Trevor Griffiths, and a cast which includes Jack Klaff, last seen by us playing Michael Mansfield in ‘Stockwell’ at the Tricycle and we couldn’t resist.

The Arcola are putting on The Cherry Orchard as part of their ‘revolution’ season, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and this historical framing is perfect for the play, which now seems prescient.  Chekhov wrote it not long before he died, and only 14 years before the Russian revolution.  It has a very clear historical context, but it is also rooted in Chekhov’s genius for understanding people which seems to make his work timeless.  We could almost feel him spinning in his grave at the inequalities and complacency of the modern world.

The action revolves around a poignant family re-union as matriarch Madame Ranevsky returns after years away in Paris to the estate that will soon have to be sold to pay off her debts.  Rejoining her brother Gayev and daughters Anya and Varya, she seems at a loss to help herself.  Meanwhile Lopakhin, the son of serf made good and friend of the family, tries in vain to help them with a business proposition which will enable them to keep their estate.  But only at the expense of their precious Cherry Orchard.

Trevor Griffiths’ version of the play is from a 1981 television version, and this is the first time it has been staged in the UK.   It works extremely well in this intimate theatre, with language that is not exactly updated, but clear and direct. Griffiths said in an interview afterwards that he chose the Cherry Orchard because

“I felt that its meanings had been seriously betrayed, almost consciously betrayed, over forty or fifty years of theatre practice in this country.”

Not that we have anything to compare it with, but this makes perfect sense – it is not a whimsical play where nothing changes, but a plea to humanity.  Mehmet Ergen’s production also brings this out with a very simple approach – the modern dress is more immediate but still shows clearly the class differences, and the key element of Iona McLeish’s design, with a single bookcase intertwined with a beautiful white skeleton of a tree, provides a visual metaphor which complements the action well.

All the characters are important in the play, which seems almost deliberately to represent the broadest possible range of views.  With a very strong cast, the subtle power of the drama wins out over any kind of crude polemic.  At the centre is Jude Akuwudike’s Lopakhin, a pre-revolutionary Alan Sugar, except that he doesn’t want to fire anyone – he is desperate for the aristocratic family to go into business with him in a mutually beneficial deal.  He may have devoted his life to making money and had to deal with some unsavory characters along the way, but Akuwudike’s portrayal is full of warmth and humour, and he has more in common with the idealistic student Trofimov than the old aristocrats whom he now beats in the wealth stakes.

Sian Thomas as Madame Ranevsky delivers a deceptively complex performance.  She is full of lively charm, bestowing cheer and warm-hearted welcomes on everyone on her arrival at her long lost home, but slowly she reveals the distance and detachment in her character which keeps us guessing about her true motives.  Thomas holds us fascinated as if by a slow motion car crash.  As Gayev, her feckless brother, Jack Klaff is equally watchable, reminiscing volubly about the past without appearing to ever have left it.  He unerringly homes in on the most trivial aspect of any situation and then waxes lyrical about it, and what starts out as a simple case of verbosity is soon revealed as a kind of desperation, where words protect him from the truth.  In the final moments Klaff allows us a glimpse of the pain as Gayev is literally out of time, interrupted in his final tribute to the estate by the need to catch his train.  The little boy looks out of the face of a white-haired man.

As Varya, the adopted daughter and the only person who appears to do any work, keeping the estate going in her mother’s absence, Jade Williams delivers a masterclass in passive aggression, with the emphasis mainly on passivity.  Self-righteousness is never an attractive quality, but Williams gives her just enough vulnerability and a little air of mystery to draw us in.  Abhin Galeya gives us a Trofimov with integrity and solidity and delivers his vision of the future with absolute conviction.  At 27, not married and still a student, he might seem an easy target to the other characters but he shrugs off criticism with an air of certainty in himself which is attractive and refreshing.


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