The first two productions of The Cherry Orchard the National Theatre ever did (by Michael Blakemore and Peter Hall, in 1973 and 1978) were done in accurate translations by two Russian-speakers, Ronald Hingley and Michael Frayn. It’s all gone a bit looser since, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re a purist.
This new version by Aussie writer Andrew Upton – who runs the Sydney Theatre Company with his wife, Cate Blanchett – gives Lopakhin (Conleth Hill) a couple of “bollocks” and “bloodies” in the first scene, followed later by “I’ve told you a thousand frigging times”; Yasha (Gerald Kyd) a quotation from a Nina Simone song further popularised by the Animals (“Oh, please don’t let me be misunderstood”); and Gaev (James Laurenson) a general outburst of “pongs” and “poohs” and “you whiffy crap artist.”
There is no credit for the “literal” translation in the programme or printed text. Does this matter? Yes and, less insistently, no. The important thing is that Howard Davies’s production, which is breathtakingly well designed by Bunny Christie and beautifully lit by Neil Austin, delivers an urgent, engaging and unsentimental production of a prophetic masterpiece.
Zoe Wanamaker’s returning landowner, Ranyevskaya, is a woman who lives very close to her own skin, and her physical sensations and needs. She’s half still in Paris, and this skimming across the surface of things makes her immediately available to the audience: we love her, and the chaos of her life. Her brother Gaev, played by James Laurenson, is pathetically in thrall to the memory of his snooker shots and the absurd possibility of working as a banker.
For this play, one of the crucial dramatic documents of the last century, deals with the landed gentry floating to oblivion while the new economic realities take hold. Conleth Hill’s wonderfully fleshy Lopakhin’s talk of sub-dividing the estate, building holiday homes and selling off the orchard, is a summary of what really happened.
Similarly, the bearded “eternal student” Trofimov (given a slightly too ageing and obvious Scottish abrasiveness by Mark Bonnar) predicts the political upheavals in his “wake-up” calls that seem lost on Charity Wakefield’s sweet but anodyne Anya. The blessed will not necessarily inherit the earth unless they work for it.
The scene changes here are really beautiful, and the physical swirl of the third act, with Lopakhin’s life-changing statement of ownership almost an afterthought in the mayhem. Davies uses an additional eight-strong ensemble particularly well in the river and party scenes, with Craige Els coming right out of the strange snapped cable sound effect as the threatening vagrant en route to the railway station.
I loved, too, Claudie Blakley’s scrubbed Varya, played in the stark lines of a Modigliani painting, Sarah Woodward’s tragic Charlotta, with her funny tricks (and no dog), Tim McMullan’s leech-like neighbouring landowner and, especially, Kenneth Cranham’s mottled old Firs, who’s seen it all and turns his final abandonment into a political statement of extinction, as if in an Edward Bond play.