Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, is about the transition from the old to the new for a society and for its individuals charting the chaos it causes. Director Michael Boyd’s new version – a Bristol Old Vic and Manchester Royal Exchange co-production – calls attention to its own theatricality, staging the story with circus-like flourishes that find the comedy in the wreck of the characters’ lives.
As the story begins, Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya (Kirsty Bushell), the daughter of the aristocratic Russian family who own the grand house where the action takes place, is returning home from Paris with her retinue in tow. She discovers the house, and its beautiful cherry orchard, are about to be sold to pay her family’s debts. Lopakhin (Jude Owusu), the son of a serf on the estate, is now part of the new class of wealthy bourgeois merchants. He has yearned for Ranevskaya since childhood – despite being quasi-engaged to her put-upon adopted daughter Varya (Rosy McEwen), who has been struggling to keep things under control as the housekeeper – and tries in vain to make the family realise the truth of their situation.
The stereotypical image of a Chekhov play is one of gloom and despair – in the words of the classic film Withnail & I, “full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow”. This production aims to offer a new vision of the writer’s works by reinventing the play with glittering strangeness. In his programme notes, playwright Rory Mullarkey, who wrote a new translation for this performance, notes that he was guided by the fact that Chekhov “not entirely ironically” subtitled the play “A Comedy”. The play is full of physical and verbal humour that got a big laugh out of the audience, from a running gag about Yepikhodov (Jack Monaghan) wearing squeaking boots to Ranevskaya’s brother Leonid (Simon Coates) giving a hilarious yet affecting toast to a bookcase in their childhood home.
The play features blasts of polka music, a child actor performing gymnastics, and Éva Magyar’s clownish Charlotta involving the audience in her card tricks and ventriloquism. In Act 2, a revolve at the centre of the stage is used to spin the cast around as they talk. The production chooses to capture the personal and social chaos as Russia’s ruling classes began to lose their grip on power by making the audience literally unsure of the ground beneath their feet, trusting them to feel the sadness behind the mirth. After living a lifetime of immense privilege, the characters are finding all their old certainties disappearing. Their efforts to deflect and deny this often seem absurd, and the paradox of the play is that the audience can both laugh at them and feel for them.
It’s a striking production, but the elaborate effects potentially betrayed a lack of confidence in the play’s ability to stand alone. The cast sometimes seem pressured to match the staging with over-exaggerated performances, with the exception of Bushell, who delivers a captivating portrait of Ranevskaya’s many facets – warm-hearted yet self-absorbed, playful yet imperious, and ultimately tragic as she finally faces her future. The advantage of the production’s energy, however, is that it suggests the possibility of rebirth as well as loss in the upheaval it depicts. All the characters in The Cherry Orchard, from the servants to the aristocrats, are beginning to realise that the unjust social order of serfdom they’ve grown up in will not last, and are forced to reckon with the cost. “Owning human souls,” the idealistic tutor Trofimov (Enyi Okoronkwo) says, “that’s changed all of you.” Chekhov died before he could see just how drastically Russia would change. In a very different world over a hundred years later, again riven by political upheaval and class conflict and with increasing suspicion between Russia and the United Kingdom, this production offers a possibility of hope and humanity. We never see the cherry orchard onstage, but when Ranevskaya’s other daughter Anya (Verity Blyth) tells her “We’ll plant a new orchard, more beautiful than the last one”, you can almost picture it.
The Cherry Orchard continues at Bristol’s Old Vic til 7 April. Further information and tickets can be found here.
 Rory Mullarkey, ‘Translating Chekhov’, The Cherry Orchard programme