When peasant-turned-speculator Lopakhin (Michael Feast) announces in Act III that the cherry orchard has indeed been sold, and sold to him, Prunella Scales's Madame Ranevskaya reels and grabs at a chair for support; as Lopakhin's account of the auction continues, rather than regaining her composure she turns further away until she is giving vent to great, racking sobs almost into the upholstery. This Ranevskaya is not melodramatic or flighty in her unworldliness (unlike her brother Gaev, played by John Quentin as an old-school drawling patrician); it is simply that such matters never quite impinge on her consciousness. The sale of the estate from beneath her, far more truly than the strange and distant noise heard in Act II, is the moment at which the passing away of the old order makes itself felt to her as undeniable reality.
I seem, on average, to be seeing a Cherry Orchard every couple of months at present; Stephen Unwin's production for English Touring Theatre is, with the possible exception of Janet Suzman's South African "response" to the play The Free State, the clearest of the recent batch. It is full of beautiful little touches. In the opening moments, when Lopakhin awakes in his chair to hear that the family are almost back at their old house, he revives himself by dabbing cologne both on his neck and on the tips of his moustache. Simon Scardifield, looking like a young Lenin as the insufferable servant Yasha, kisses the smitten Dunyasha perfunctorily and only afterwards exhales his cigar smoke. Sarah Malin's Varya makes her frustration at Lopakhin's persistent inability to propose to her clear in a single remark almost thrown away as the family prepare to leave the house for the last time, and Frank Middlemass and Michael Cronin enjoy their old-stager cameos as wrinkled retainer Firs and impecunious landowner Simeonov-Pishchik respectively. Even the brief dance sequence at the beginning of Act III seems nicely animated rather than simply obligatory.
Pamela Howard's design demarcates several spaces by judicious use of a few flats – occasionally mildly confusing, more often usefully allowing background action to proceed simultaneously with the principal events. The orchard itself is, in imagination, located offstage left, beyond the windows through which floods Bruno Poet's Vermeer-like lighting. At one or two crucial moments, such as her brief spat with the "eternal student" Trofimov, Scales momentarily loses her emotional through-line, but for the most part this is a straightforward, discreetly illuminating rendition of Chekhov's play.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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