Andrew Hilton’s excellent production of Chekhov’s final play for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory confirms that he is as sensitive an interpreter of the great Russian as of Shakespeare: this is one of the funniest and most moving productions of the play you are likely to see. Hilton is helped by the space of course; in this intimate, compact theatre you feel you are in the nursery, in the glade with the characters. A theatre this small can be unforgiving of actors – you see them in almost cinematic close-up – but the performances show the ensemble working together brilliantly to illuminate Chekhov’s world.
Julia Hills’ Ranevskaya hits all the right notes: the childlike glee with which she greets her old nursery, the refusal to face up the reality of what needs to be done with the cherry orchard, the insensitivity of a woman who can put people down safe in the knowledge that her charm will ensure she is soon forgiven; the fears of a middle-aged beauty who has hitherto been able to trade on her looks and her charm. Her final scene with her daughter Anya as the latter begs her to come home soon is heartbreaking; the emotions running across her face show that she knows she never will and that she faces a bleak and uncertain future.
The most revelatory performance of the evening is Simon Armstrong’s Lophakhin. Too often he is played in British productions as a gauche upstart, a comic figure out of place in the sophisticated world of the Ranevskys. Armstrong’s Lopakhin is modestly aware of his faults, but seems to be geniality incarnate, fulfilled by his work, delighting in the company of the family, endlessly smiling. Even when Trofimov compares him to a wild beast, an essential part of the food chain and nothing more, he retains his good humour. Only when drunkenly celebrating his purchase of the orchard do we see in his anger and understandable triumphalism what his rise must have cost him. And in the final moving scene with Varya as he is unable to say what needs to be said you realise that he in his own way is as deluded as the others.
The whole cast is superb and brings out the richness of Chekhov’s characterisation. Dorothea Myers-Bennett captures perfectly the exasperated good sense of Varya, worried about the family’s lack of money and her adoptive mother’s inability to look after it, hurt by Ranevskaya’s casual cruelty when she compares her to a nun, patiently living a life of service and waiting for Lopakhin to speak. Eleanor Yates’ Anya is comically disappointed by Trofimov’s declaration ‘We’re above love’ and shows beautifully a young woman’s fascination and uncertainty as she falls for an eloquent idealist. Even characters usually overshadowed by the leads feel lifelike and true: Christopher Bianchi wrests humour and pathos from Gaev’s delusions and immaturity. Roland Oliver even makes Simeonov-Pishchik an entertaining presence.
Stephen Mulrane’s translation is a marvel, full of verbal felicities and laugh-out-loud lines: Yepikhodov describes his new shoes as squeaking “beyond the bounds of possibility”. Upton’s directorial touch is as sure as ever, making Chekhov’s elusive characters real for us and bringing out his perfect balance of comedy and pain against a background of a world changing forever.
If you’re lucky enough to go on a Wednesday or Friday night you can see after the show Paul Brendan’s performance of On the Evils of Tobacco, an early comic vaudeville by Chekhov and translated by Stephen Mulrane. Highly recommended.