Following their Olivier Award wins for The White Guard, director Howard Davies and set designer Bunny Christie are back at the National Theatre along with adaptor Andrew Upton to stage Chekhov’s end-of-an-era classic.
As with The White Guard, Christie’s set is magnificent in its detail. It depicts Ranyevskaya’s family home, a once-grand estate with a sizeable cherry orchard where serfs once toiled. But the house’s prime is over, and Ranyevskaya has spent years living in Paris. She now returns, her Parisian love affair gone sour, to an estate mired in debt and shackled to a lifestyle that no longer exists.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, Chekhov’s piece shows a country on the cusp of great change, with the old, class-driven society being pushed aside and a new, supposedly fairer community on the idealistic horizon. Christie’s faded, rustic manor house and Neil Austin’s beautiful, end-of-season lighting show this as much as the characters: Conleth Hill’s Lopakhin, son of a serf who has risen above his origins to become a successful businessman; Petya (Mark Bonnar), a scholar who sees a golden future ahead, there to be grabbed; and Ranyevskaya’s daughter Anya (Charity Wakefield), eager for more than home-making and marriage.
But others are less keen – or able – to allow the future to arrive. Zoë Wanamaker’s Ranyevskaya is a flighty, emotional woman who prefers to dream about love than face up to the hard reality of debt and destruction. When Lopakhin offers her a way out, she cannot take it, becoming a passive pawn in Russia’s changing future, rather than grabbing it with both hands.
It is said that Chekhov intended this, his final play, to be a comedy, but its slow pace and melancholy nature contradict this. However, like in Bulgakov’s The White Guard, Upton’s adaptation uses modern vernacular to bring out the comedy. James Laurenson plays Ranyevskaya’s brother Gaev with gentle wit, while Pip Carter uses physical humour to portray the hapless Yepihodov.
Nevertheless, Chekhov’s story is not a happy one, and Davies’s production has a wistful, sad feel that is fitting for its themes. As the cherry trees are chopped down, the overwhelming feeling is of an ending – of a lifestyle, a family, a society – rather than a new beginning full of hope and potential.