15 Jul The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Andrew Hilton
29 March – 5 May 2012
Production Photos © 2012 Farrows Creative
This production transferred for a one-week season to the Rose Theatre Kingston,15 – 19 May. On a number of evenings, in both Bristol and Kingston, Paul Brendan performed Chekhov’s On the Evils of Tobacco, in a new translation by Stephen Mulrine, as a late-night extra.
By Anton Chekhov – Translated by Stephen Mulrine
Julia Hills Lyubov Ranevskaya
Eleanor Yates Anya
Dorothea Myer-Bennett Varya
Christopher Bianchi Leonid Gaev
Simon Armstrong Yermolai Lopakhin
Benjamin O’Mahony Trofimov
Roland Oliver Simeonov-Pishchik
Saskia Portway Charlotta Ivanovna
Paul Brendan Yepikhodov
Gemma Lawrence Dunyasha
Paul Nicholson Firs
Piers Wehner Yasha
Paul Currier Tramp
Director Andrew Hilton
Assistant Director Harriet Layhe
Designer Harriet de Winton
Composer Elizabeth Purnell
Lighting Designer Matthew Graham
★★★★★ The Guardian Andrew Hilton’s annual Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory season has done it again. This vivid, superlative production of Chekhov’s last play, translated by Stephen Mulrine, embraces its comedy to underscore the tragedy and does so with an exquisite sense of balance. As always with Hilton’s simply staged adaptations, it’s all about the timeless brilliance of the writing taking centre stage, with performances to match.
And what performances there are here, led by Julia Hills as Madame Ranevskaya, newly returned from Paris to face the sale of her Russian estate to clear her debts. Exquisitely dressed in the latest Parisian fashions, she notes how everyone she left behind has grown old – as if she herself might be immune from ageing. It’s the first of the play’s beautifully drawn examples of characters trapped in their own static worlds, incapable of self-knowledge. This is how we know they are all doomed, but also leads to the many laughs from bizarre interjections, misunderstandings and non-sequiturs.
Comic highlights include Roland Oliver as Simeonov-Pishchik, always sozzled, broke and happy, Saskia Portway as peculiar governess Charlotta, and Christopher Bianchi as Gaev, who speaks in torrents of nonsense. The hysterical energy of these performances amplifies the existential limbo and delusion other characters are living in, and the sense of an old order broken beyond fixing. These themes and faultless performances throughout are directed by Hilton with subtlety and precision so that, with only a few rugs and pieces of furniture on stage, we believe in the old house full of memories and the cherry orchard beyond. Because we do, the final scene is tremendously, and almost unbearably, moving. Elisabeth Mahoney
★★★★ The Independent Chekhov’s estate-of-the-nation tragicomedy is still bearing fruit. It has become an old joke that no one laughs at Shakespeare’s comedies – and the same is often assumed of Chekhov’s. But this production of The Cherry Orchard at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory is not only moving and poignant but also very funny.
Director Andrew Hilton has created a world in which objects are the only things that have value – humans just get in the way. Madame Ranevskaya returns from a stay in Paris to her house in Russia to discover that she is so seriously in debt that the estate – including the cherry orchard of the title – has to be auctioned off.
Julia Hills as Ranevskaya remains just the right side of irritating. Her adoration of the house, the furniture and the orchard is touching, rather than grating: she sing-songs her delight in lilting phrases and contorts her face into smiles that have more than a dash of pain about them.
Her counterweight in the play, the lumbering businessman Lopakhin, is from peasant stock and Simon Armstrong in the part seems to dominate the stage in a way the buttoned up aristocratic characters are incapable of. But our sympathies lie with Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter, Varya. Dorothea Myer-Bennett creates a finely drawn portrait of frustration – which comes to a head in the agonising scene in which Lopakhin doesn’t quite manage to propose to her.
Pain, though, is never allowed to take over for long in Hilton’s production: after one emotionally charged scene the idealistic student Trofimov (Benjamin O’Mahony) promptly falls down the stairs – to the other characters’ amusement.
Much of the evening’s comedy comes courtesy of the clerk Yepikhodov,”the walking disaster”. In a brilliantly judged performance from Paul Brendan, the miserable clerk is both touching and funny – all that’s missing is the sad painted-on face of a clown. There’s fine comic work too from Saskia Portway who plays Charlotta the governess cum magician; and Eleanor Yates plays the youngest daughter of the house, Anya, with guileless charm.
The Cherry Orchard is a play that tempts directors to take sides – on class, on capitalism, on philosophy. But Hilton is even-handed. Each point of view is presented as equally fallible, all the characters equally selfish, and the evening is made funny, clever and thought-provoking as a result. Elizabeth Davis
The Observer … In Bristol, Andrew Hilton is also seeking to rescue Chekhov from decorative melancholy. Three years ago he directed a furious Uncle Vanya. Now he presents a cantankerous production of The Cherry Orchard that is driven not by wistfulness but by angry misery; once again he is paying attention to the advice Chekhov gave to his future wife Olga Knipper, that when acting in Three Sisters she should show she is distressed by being cross. Hilton subtly rearticulates the play.
“Disjointed” is the word Stephen Mulrine’s fine translation uses to describe the lives of the egotists who float around together: here, comedy and tragedy merge in a barely suppressed hysteria. Julia Hills’s brittle Mme Ranevskaya bestows her insults – “oh you’ve aged” – as graciously as if she were dispensing alms. As Charlotta, the spooky governess who performs conjuring tricks, practises ventriloquism and doesn’t know the date of her birth, Saskia Portway looks grumpy enough to shoot someone for singing badly (she has the gun). Lopakhin, the businessman to whom the cherry orchard is eventually sold, is often presented as if his entrepreneurial energy were merely grubby while the lassitude of the landowners is another aspect of elegant fine-mindedness. Not here. Simon Armstrong, who was Hilton’s impressive Vanya in 2009, does not go as far as those Soviet stagings of the play in which he was a hero for taking an axe to the assets of the land-owning classes, but he has a vitality of speech, purpose and action that make him appear unequivocally a possible saviour for lovelorn Varya rather than her inevitable disappointment. This matters more than ever at the Tobacco Factory (which has also, wittily, been offering a reading of Chekhov’s monologue The Evils of Tobacco in its bar), for Dorothea Myer-Bennett is truly remarkable as Varya. From the moment she comes on to the stage it is as if all the action of the play is reflected in her face: she doesn’t flinch or shudder but is compellingly attentive to everyone else onstage: she is a cipher who is filled with the snubs and casual disregard of others. Susannah Clapp
★★★★ The Sunday Times Andrew Hilton’s brisk staging doesn’t overdose on elegy (often the default mood for Chekhov) It’s full of darting perceptions ….this production captures the sense of a family and a country in flux, and our impossible yearning to stop time. Maxie Szalwinska
★★★★ The Times Andrew Hilton’s company, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, established its reputation doing what its name declares, but three times now it has tackled a major Chekhov play and these too, like the Shakespeares, call for large casts. None of the actors in them, however, play peripheral characters (like Shakespeare’s messengers or attendant lords) because everyone in a Chekhov play is there to add something precise to the play’s mood and theme.
Why, for example, does the governess Charlotta (Saskia Portway) suddenly pretend that a roll of cloth is her baby, which she pets and fondles and then throws aside, saying it bores her? We laugh, as does her audience within the play, but immediately before this tiny scene Madame Ranevskaya, who is impatient to return to her scoundrel lover, has similarly ignored the naive claims of her own daughter, and is ready to cast her aside too.
Julia Hills’s Ranevskaya, owner of the doomed cherry orchard, begins on a more volatile note than has become customary, dashing between the furniture, flashing her wide smile, but soon we realise that this unpredictability is the vital ingredient in the charm that enslaves men. At one time four of them are seated on the four sides of the stage gazing adoringly at her.
Just before the orchard’s sale is announced, when she cannot bear to be alone with her sorrow, Hills shows clearly the panic never far beneath the frenzy; and in the confrontation with Trofimov, the “eternal student” (Benjamin O’Mahony, excellent), her feelings break out in a storm both powerful and shocking.
In Simon Armstrong’s Lopakhin, the former serf’s son now rich enough to buy the orchard, there is a touching gentleness, reflective, even placid, that bears out Trofimov’s perception of him. He has evidently eliminated much of the coarseness that was his patrimony (Chekhov’s father, too, was an abusive former serf) but in his amazed joy at his success the former resentments hurtle forth. The past is not so easily outmanoeuvred.
As always in a Hilton production, the tiny expressions that flash across the actors’ faces reveal so much of what the character cannot find the words to convey. Often they cannot find the necessary thoughts, either, which is Chekhov’s theme in this play, as in his others: people do not know who they are and daren’t find out. Jeremy Kingston
The British Theatre Guide at the Rose Theatre, Kingston … few (productions) have better captured the strange brew of humour, irony and sadness in Chekhov’s play, or its sense of a world on the brink of momentous change. Recommended. Alex Ramon
★★★★ WhatsonStage Andrew Hilton’s excellent production of Chekhov’s final play for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory confirms that he is as sensitive an interpreter of the great Russian as of Shakespeare: this is one of the funniest and most moving productions of the play you are likely to see. John Campbell
★★★★ Venue Hilarious, poignant, tender and harrowing by turns, this is a typically accomplished rendering of a brilliantly nuanced tragicomedy, by a company of whom Bristol can be as proud as ever. Steve Wright
★★★★ Exeunt Magazine For anyone who thought Chekhov is the dry and boring stuff of academic papers and over-wrought method acting, stf’s The Cherry Orchard will be a revelation. For those who’ve always suspected that this is a play that somehow manages to range from broad sitcom to heart-wrenching tragedy, it will be an affirmation. Tom Phillips
Plays International The main event this season was The Cherry Orchard from Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory. Chekhov like Shakespeare engages with universal truths about the human condition, and this story’s themes echo the company’s other production King Lear: times of turmoil and a dynasty lost through tragic folly. Chekhov however saw his play as a comedy, and Andrew Hilton’s wonderfully-paced direction together with immaculate performances ensured full appreciation of the script’s droll wit.
I can’t praise the acting enough, especially Simon Armstrong as upwardly mobile Lopakhin, Julia Hills as beautiful ruined Mme Ranevskaya, and Benjamin O’Mahony as the idealist Trofimov. Harriet de Winton’s evocative costumes were delicious, and both set & lighting supported every mood – never more so than at the end when every tragic inevitability comes together as dusk falls.
This production superbly showed not just the light and shade of the story but the subtle and intense interactions between all these individuals… and thus between us all. There was one point when Trofimov was holding forth on political change, and the rapt attention from his own milieu extended into the auditorium as we too processed his grand concepts through our own experiences and beliefs, his words profoundly timeless as well as touchingly poignant. It was a transcendent moment in a dazzling production. Crysse Morrison
Gazette If you only go to see one play this year this should be it. Jayne Bennett
The play in Rehearsal …
Watch the Cherry Orchard rehearsal film here