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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Cherry Orchard

Hear what I have to say about the Cherry Orchard, because it is mine. I say bring it down, tear it down. Smash it down and tear it down. Watch, watch. Just you watch. I will build holiday villas, as far as the eye can see. I will build a place for everyone to come and enjoy. For the future. And this will be the future. A new life. A new way of life. Here! — Lopakhin
The Cherry Orchard
Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Ranevskaya and Conleth Hill as Lopakhin (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
There is a British television series called Country House Rescue which each week features some landowners living in a dilapidated pile in the English countryside which they cannot afford to maintain. A businesswoman comes up with ideas for them to turn around the financial situation and get them off their uppers. Mostly they end up doing up a part of the house and gardens and letting it out for weddings or bed and breakfast but occasionally the owner will resist all attempts to change. I was put in mind of this predicament as I watched Howard Davies' version of The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre's Olivier with its ultra modern translation by Andrew Upton, who was so successful with his adaptation of The White Guard.

Upton's version is so full of anachronism, references to banking and business language, someone mentions risk assessment, and there was a groan as Yasha (Gerald Kyd), Ranevskaya's manservant says in a quote from a 1960s hit by The Animals, "Oh Lord, Please don't let me be misunderstood". It grated for me. I know in the programme Howard Davies tells us he wanted a political production, not a pretty costume drama so for instance parasols were banned and the set has enormous telegraph poles to the fore instead of the trunks of the traditional silver birches, or for this play, cherry trees. Davies' point is that this play is set in the twentieth century and there is no room for sentiment.

Zoë Wanamaker plays Ranevskaya returning home broke after ten years in Paris. Her husbands have been a disaster — drunkards, wastrels — and she is flat broke. Her adopted daughter Varya (Claudie Blakley) desperately tries to manage everything and is accused of feeding dried peas to the many squatters on the estate. The future in this play is predicted by the merchant Lopakhin (Conleth Hill), once a serf and now the new economic elite and the eternal student Trofimov (Mark Bonnar), the Trotskyite figure making political predictions for a fairer society. Nowadays Lopakhin would own Chelsea Footbal Club. Anya (Charity Wakefield), Ranevskaya's other daughter will fall in love with Trofimov.

Zoë Wanamaker plays Ranevskaya as shallow as shallow can be, in denial about her situation and unbelievably selfish yet somehow her performance is without charm or grace or attraction. She is always the actress, insincere and spoilt, and ultimately annoying. She makes you think it is a shame the Russian Revolution didn't feature the guillotine. It is hard to imagine that Lopakhin could ever have trembled at her touch when she spoke to him as "Little peasant". Claudie Blakley's downtrodden Varya fails to connect with Lopakhin but their final scene is a non event. Maybe Lopakhin feels he can do better.

I liked Conleth Hill's businessman. Initially he is still in awe of the landowners but by the end of the play he knows he is the new power and starts to brag. Early on he makes a suggestion for economic recovery for the family of selling the orchard and building holiday homes but they won't listen. They are in denial. James Laurenson as Ranevskaya's is almost a simple minded sentimentalist and Sarah Woodward's ex governess Charlotta is bizarre with her circus tricks but appearing genuinely lost when the family can no longer afford to keep her. Mark Bonnar's Trofimov has sincerity in his speech about the brutalised society although we now know that the revolution would not produce a fairer society, just that the elite would be different people.

The Olivier is a sprawling stage and Bunny Christie's country house set is more like that of the Wild West, unplastered, wooden slats forming the walls, open plan, a staircase leading upstairs . The second act is beautifully lit when they have a picnic and behind we see tall stalks of corn with the sun shining on them.

Chekhov described The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. There is little to laugh at in this the cruellest Cherry Orchard I have seen.

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The Cherry Orchard
Written by Anton Chekhov
In a version by Andrew Upton
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Zoë Wanamaker, Mark Bonnar, Conleth Hill
With: Emily Taaffe, Pip Carter, Charity Wakefield, Claudie Blakley, James Laurenson, Sarah Woodward, Tim McMullan, Gerald Kyd, Kenneth Cranham, Craige Els, Paul Dodds, Mark Fleischmann, Colin Haigh, Jessica Regan, Tim Samuels, Stephanie Thomas, Joseph Thompson, Rosie Thomson, Ellie Turner
Design: Bunny Christie
Lighting: Neil Austin
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Music : Dominic Muldowney
Fight Director : Terry King
Sound: Lynne Page
Running time: Two hours 55 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 20th June 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th May 2011 performance at the Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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