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Review Round-up: Wanamaker Takes on NT Orchard

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Chekhov's final play, The Cherry Orchard, opened the National Theatre's 2011 Travelex £12 Ticket Season on Tuesday (17 May 2011, previews from 10 May) in NT Olivier.

The Russian classic, which was last staged at the National in 2000, tells the story of Madame Ranyevskaya (Zoe Wanamaker), who returns from Paris to find that the family estate, including her beloved orchard, is about to be sold to pay off mounting debts. Revelling in past glories and extravagances, the family ignores all offers for help.

Directed by Howard Davies, Wanamaker is joined in the cast by Pip Carter, Kenneth Cranham, Mark Bonnar, Conleth Hill, Sarah Woodward and James Laurenson.

Michael Coveney

"This new version by Aussie writer Andrew Upton... 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” ... 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...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... 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... I loved, too, Claudie Blakley’s scrubbed Varya...Sarah Woodward’s tragic Charlotta ... Tim McMullan]’s leech-like neighbouring landowner and, especially, Kenneth Cranham’s mottled old Firs."

Michael Billington

"While this production strenuously avoids sentimental cliche... it also misses something of the play's elusive poetry: it is highly intelligent and richly detailed ... There is nothing elgiac, either, about Davies's approach or Andrew Upton's new version: indeed there is something almost brutal about the language ... This reversal of expectation extends to Bunny Christie's set, which turns the cherished family home into a hugely dilapidated, run-down wooden structure: my only problem is that I never once believe... in the surpassing beauty of the orchard itself. What Davies does capture, in this hard-edged production, is the essential contradiction of Chekhov's characters. Zoe Wanamaker plays Ranyevskaya excellently as a woman who combines utter financial recklessness with a fierce emotional intelligence ... That element of internal conflict is also exuberantly present in Conleth Hill's Lopakhin... Davies' production... contains a number of well-defined performances: I was especially impressed by Mark Bonnar who lends Trofimov's radical vision of the future real urgency while also capturing the character's absurdity. Good work too from Pip Carter who plays the accident-prone Yepihodov as a tortured, lovesick soul, from Emily Taaffe who shows both the flightiness and heartbreak of the maid Dunyasha, and from Kenneth Cranham who pins down the sad senility of the neglected servant, Firs ... There is much to praise in this production. But it is so anxious to avoid sentimentality... that it underplays Chekhov's ambivalence about change and the march of progress."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"The first thing to be said about Howard Davies’s new production of The Cherry Orchard is that is wonderfully fresh, funny and deeply felt, and ravishingly designed by Bunny Christie. The second is that the Australian writer Andrew Upton... should be taken out of the theatre and thrown into the Thames along with his script. I’m all in favour of a vivid modern translation, but it ought also to reflect the age in which the play is set ... Within the first few minutes we hear such phrases as “Oh bollocks”, “every single bloody time” and learn of people earning “25 to 30K a year” ... The effect is merely ridiculous, for the rest of the staging is scrupulously in period. Yet if you can put this absurdity aside... much of the production is superb. Howard Davies... captures that distinctive Chekhovian mood of wild humour and piercing sadness to perfection. Meanwhile the cast is one of the finest ensembles I have ever seen at the National. As the doomed landowner Ranyevskaya, Zoe Wanamaker heart-wrenchingly captures the character’s mixture of reckless frivolity and sudden moments of piercing guilt and grief ... James Laurenson is both funny and affecting as her dreamy brother... while Claudie Blakley is almost unbearably poignant as Ranyevskaya’s plain, adopted daughter ... Conleth Hill beautifully conveys the mixture of affection and exasperation...and there are wonderful comic turns in smaller roles from Sarah Woodward as a gruff, displaced governess-cum-magician and Tim McMullan as a bonkers neighbour. At its considerable best, this is a great production, and it is painful to see it undermined by the idiocies of Upton’s script."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Chekhov described his final play as 'a comedy, in places even a farce' and claimed that its mood should appear 'cheerful and frivolous'. This isn't how it tends to be presented, but Howard Davies's finely balanced production brings out the often neglected humour ... As Ranyevskaya, the debt-ridden landowner... Zoe Wanamaker conveys passion and self-centredness with great sensitivity and an array of understated details ... Andrew Upton's new version of the play abounds with curious language. He is at his best when most restrained. Many will balk at his use of words such as 'frigging' and 'bozo', but there are moments of precisely measured poetry ... Conleth Hill is especially striking as Lopakhin, the harbinger of social mobility ... There's also exquisite work in smaller roles, with Pip Carter, Tim McMullan, Mark Bonnar and Sarah Woodward all superb...Davies makes its emotional conflicts and anxieties feel three-dimensional ... And if occasionally the production seems underpowered, its architecture is always clear. Bunny Christie's design is opulent...This is an unusual account of Chekhov's masterpiece, at times muscular and rambunctious yet still articulate about futility and sorrow. It could perhaps do with a keener sense of historical specificity and deeper notes of elegy ... But it reinforces the conviction that Davies is Britain's most consistently satisfying interpreter of Russian drama."

Libby Purves
The Times

"This is a lively production of Chekhov’s last play: a highly colloquial new version by Andrew Upton with words such as “frigging” and “bozo” ... Davies brings out the comic intent that Chekhov always claimed — with some wonderful physical absurdities from the clumsy, gangling Yepihodov (Pip Carter) and Tim McMullan as the parasitic, roistering, moustachioed Pischik. It also takes seriously the play’s prophetic social analysis of the century to come: Bunny Christie’s towering wooden-walled house folds open to a courtyard revealing glowing golden reeds, indicating the living river and illimitable, organic, ever-changing Russia. The intellectual structure of the play is laid out as all 20th-century classes appear in embryo ... Wanamaker is superb as Madame Ranyevskaya ... But it was Conleth Hill’s Lopakhin who really moved me: awkward, practical, touched with peasant affection for the old Mistress, exultant at his own rise yet sorrowful about the destruction of what went before ... There’s no point denying that the final departure scene drags ... But the tiny, famously poignant coda — thanks to the wonderful Kenneth Cranham — restores us to the human perspective."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"They have tarted up Chekhov at the Royal National Theatre. This production has the Russian playwright’s characters saying words such as 'bollocks' and 'frigging' ... The words 'arIStocrat' and 'deTAILS' are pronounced thus, in the American fashion. Ugh. Why do we bother with a national theatre if it is so eager to hurl away Englishness? Despite these show-offy tics, Chekhov’s drama survives. The show is also blessed with an amazing set by Bunny Christie ... The house, beautifully created with long, high rooms and peeling grandeur, stands for much more than domestic familiarity ... But for anyone who has lost a family home to financial troubles, this play is an intense reminder of painful separation. The tears of Ranyevskaya’s daughters (Charity Wakefield and Claudie Blakley) are believable. If Miss Blakley could just hit her consonants more clearly, this would be a strong showing from her. The evening is nearly stolen by Conleth Hill who plays Lopakhin, a merchant who loves one of the daughters and is surely rich enough to buy the house. Mr Hill cements himself in place as one of London’s most fluent talents, though he needs to beware becoming a Roy Kinnear tribute act. Miss Wanamaker’s chatelaine is a pillar of imperious impracticality and Tim McMullan does a terrific turn as a local landowner down on his luck. If Mr Upton and director Howard Davies would just drop the childish, me-me slang, this would be a really fine show."

- Brenna Weingus


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