30 June 2011: Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

In a new adaptation by Andrew Upton. National Theatre Live production, broadcast at Amherst Cinema, Amherst, Massachusetts, from the Olivier Theatre, NT. Running time 2 hrs 45 mins, including an interval. With Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Ranevskaya.

The designer, Bunny Christie, interviewed on screen, said that she had come across what she considered the perfect material for the setting of Chekhov’s play in a photograph of a disused industrial building in London. She went and viewed the building, found it in a dilapidated state, with wooden walls long ago having lost whatever paint they once had, exposed to time and the elements; and there she had her setting for the play. A model of the set was also shown in the interview, and it drew together a picture of advanced domestic decay. It is a house of which its owners, Ranevskaya and her brother Gaef, hold many joint memories, but for all that it appears to us as a drafty, oversize barn, scant protection against harsh Russian winters and a generally unfriendly place.

And yet in the midst of this barren, time-worn hostel the humanity that Chekhov conjures up and that the director Howard Davies has reified here is extraordinary. The casting is wonderful, without exception. The faces are memorable, and beautifully well contrasted, and we get to see them close up, even while the cameras alternatively drop back and give us a sense of a vibrant ensemble, alive and feeling, even while each act manages to cast the spell of its own mood on the proceedings. That mood is driven by the overall action of the play: in the structure that Chekhov imposes, we see an arrival, a sojourn, and a departure, and the process of this action carries out the promise, or rather the threat, that the cherry orchard — which is both the orchard itself and the larger property and house of which it is a part —  will be sold to pay its deep, unmanageable debts. But Peter Trofimov’s pronouncement that “All Russia is our orchard,” while thoroughly typical of this anarchist and idealist, is the truth that governs the converging meanings of the play. What we see presented to us is no less than a way of life, a culture that values what it values so greatly and clings to so compulsively that it is unable to let go and face the unpleasant facts of change.

Davies’s direction makes this emergent truth clear, on the level of character and, just as clearly, on the level of ideas; and neither gets in the way of the other. The play is beautifully acted, and we are never distracted from the delicate nuances and bold statements that together advance the action unerringly, even while we are granted the apparent leisure to become absorbed in the clarifying, shifting, and modulating relationships that this, like all Chekhov’s plays, seems to be made up of entirely. It is a gift of a high order to be able to pull all this together while never allowing a false or artificial note to intrude.

Zoë Wanamaker is a strong actress, and a confident one, portraying a woman of almost ungovernable passion, a creature of impulse, radically disorganized and yet supremely clear in the knowledge of her own heart. James Laurenson is likewise an actor who embraces his character, the brother Gaef, with a deep sympathy born of deep knowledge and forgiveness. And the third character in the major triangle, Lopakhin, the peasant and son of a slave now turned wealthy merchant, who within days of their arrival will purchase the cherry orchard himself, is played by Conleth Hill superbly well, also. The man is held, even shackled, by his bond to the past, and yet the realities that face the country now are as clear and fully felt to him, and held in mind and heart, as the touch of the young Ranevsky’s hand on his cheek. He remembers, when he was a child, that his father hit him on the nose, in a harsh, brutal stroke that brought tears to his eyes. “Never mind, little peasant,” the young Ranevsky had said to him, stroking his face tenderly. “You will live to outgrow it,” or words to that effect.

And indeed he has lived to outgrow it, but not to forget it. He feels it as strongly, he says, as the day it happened. Davies, without seeming to overemphasize the moment and its recollection by Lopakhin, makes it the keystone of the production, in terms of what it represents — of the past held vibrantly and with physical immediacy in the present, and of the inevitabilities of change and loss. What makes Lopakhin the character he fully is, in Hill’s brilliant portrayal, is that he feels the loss of the past, of past life, even as he almost swaggeringly realizes the huge material gains of the present. Personal truths are the very stuff of a Chekhov play, ineluctable truths, and the play’s business is to make them manifest and simultaneously to make them coalesce in a total picture. We know that Lopakhin will buy the cherry orchard, and will gloat over its purchase as the crowning moment of his success as a nouveau riche. We also know, just as certainly, that he will never propose to Varya, even though he thinks she would make a good wife and even though she is ready to accept him if he does. We see his hesitation prolonged in that stumblingly chaotic Act IV, as Trofimov searches comically for his galoshes and the whole company almost drunkenly makes it way out of the house and off to the train station. And he talks about the weather, and Varya in a state of emotional suspension joins him in the talk, knowing that the talk is frivolous and fruitless and that it will never yield anything productive. The end is already over.

What is it that makes Lopakhin unable to do it? Chekhov doesn’t tell us (he is the least didactic of dramatists), but we think we know without having to be told in so many words. The millionaire with the peasant and slave heritage still worn on his sleeve is no match for anyone connected with the old aristocracy, even though Varya is connected only by virtue of having been adopted into it; and Lopakhin knows this instinctively, and this knowledge produces a reticence in him that cannot be overcome. Even while things are changing so greatly, other things cannot change at all. In the midst of huge social change, there is no change whatever in human nature. Chekhov finds this very funny, finally, and we find ourselves laughing at it as well.

And so we come to understand, and our understanding has at the same time a comic and a tragic quality, a heartbreaking quality. That heartbreak is represented by the sound, as Chekhov calls for it, of a “breaking string.” It happens once, in the middle of Act II, in a barn-like extension of the house, an indoor-outdoor area open to the sky and louring clouds. It is a strange, indefinable sound, and we don’t know what to make of it, in the long pause into which it intrudes. And then, at the very end of the play, it intrudes again, after Firs, Gaef’s manservant and gentleman of all work, discovers that the doors have been chained from the outside and that he is imprisoned for good in the old, decaying house.

As he lies down and drifts off to sleep, there are two sounds, in fact: the breaking string, and the sound of the cherry trees being chopped down. They do not blend into one another. Rather, they exist together, in two different realms, the objective and the subjective, the realistic and the theatre of ideas and dreams. The fact that the sounds do not blend, but are held in suspension, permanently, is what makes the play what it is, something unfinished and yet perfectly clear; all too clear, in fact. Its completion, finally, occurs in our further thoughts, as we range widely over the meanings that have been generated in the course of nearly three hours, during which we began to feel that we had always been in the company of these people, and that we were getting to know them better even than we know ourselves. And as we gained in knowledge we gained in understanding; not precisely in pity, and not in mere sympathy, but in some complex combination of all that cannot be put easily, or at all, into words. Finally, we understand that the action stands for itself, is itself, and does not “give rise to” something higher, or other, but is finally itself, seen more clearly than ever before.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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