Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Cherry Orchard

Applying for work at Fest, the award-winning Edinburgh Fringe magazine mostly run by former staff of the The Student, they had the dashed cheek to ask for three sample reviews. I only had two published ones lying around, so I had to write up this gem quickly (I had actually been to the play, and it was amazing). The reason I had no time is that my old section editor Hannah Carr had demanded I ride the longest escalator in the world and give her a quote about it. It was basically just like one you get in M&S but longer and with more flirting Russians. Anyway, here's the review:


The Cherry Orchard

Chekhov Theatre Festival, Lenkom Theatre, Moscow, May 31, 2010

Unpublished (just for you, you lucky people)

The cliched criticism levelled at Chekhov's plays, and Russian drama in general, is that nothing bloody well happens. But even the most dogged champion of this approach will have to agree that the Lenkom's production of The Cherry Orchard is the most riveting, risque, even sexy, two hours of nothing happening that you will ever see.

The text blossoms, treating Chekhov's sympathetic portrayal of misunderstanding, relationships breaking down and a society in flux with full respect for its myriad of subtle meanings. This is helped by the liberal sprinkling of stardust in the cast, which contains four actors with the honour of 'People's Artist of Russia' - in effect, officially mandated national treasures. And they shine. 84-year-old Leonid Bronevoi is particularly outstanding in the role of Feers, the ancient butler who symbolises the aristocracy's slide into irrelevance with his out-of-touch mumblings about decade past. Bronevoi inhabits the role with a genuine pathos and a fine sense of comic timing.

It can be easy to forget that Chekhov intended his plays to comedies, and this is sometimes lost in favour of a po-faced inherent-sadness-of-the-human-condition portrayal. Here, director Alexander Zakharov reminds his audience that Chekhov can be hilarious. The German governess brought back by aristocratic lead Lyubov from her time in Paris is a groteque figure dressed like a can-can dancer, there to distract the rich from the realities of life. Recognising the humour in this figure and playing to it has the added bonus of allowing the audience to empathise with the characters - their amusement amuses us too.

And then there's the sex. The relationship between Lyubov and brash young businessmen Lopakhin is given a whole new meaning as she breaks her boredom with explicit fantasies of him, the old firting with the news. It's heady stuff.

While the Lenkom production could be a bit more polished, especially in the slightly sagging second act, this is Chekhov on fine form. It will also be a fine tonic for anyone who saw the festival-opening production of Three Sisters, where half the audience left at the interval after director Frank Kastorf attempted to "break down the structure of meaning" by having every line delivered in voices like pneumatic drills. Highly recommended.

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