Magazine article The Spectator

Barmy and Bleak

Magazine article The Spectator

Barmy and Bleak

Article excerpt

The Cherry Orchard

Olivier, in rep until 13 August

The Prisoner of Windsor

Leicester Square Theatre, until 11 June

The Cherry Orchard is Chekhov's barmiest and bleakest play. It's also his richest.

The madness starts immediately. To set the opening scene of a sprawling family drama at four o'clock in the morning seems eccentric to the point of rashness but Chekhov is a master of his craft. A wealthy widow, Ranyevskaya, has arrived at her estate after a long trip from Paris and she's greeted by staff and relatives who've waited up all night to help her entourage settle into the house.

This gives the scene a fragmented dynamism which allows a dozen characters and relationships to be gradually elucidated in conditions of perfect naturalism.

The estate is about to be swallowed up by greedy debtors and a prosperous merchant, Lopakhin, has come up with a rescue plan.

By felling the orchard and building holiday homes in its place he can offer the bankrupt family not just security but also lasting prosperity. They'll be well off. Ranyevskaya, and her loveably oafish brother Gaev, won't dream of sacrificing their ancestral lands to become the Pontins of imperial Russia.

This activates the plot, a treasure hunt in reverse, in which fleet-footed enterprise is pitched against sluggish, respectable Old Money. The family's salvation may lie in a successful marriage. Two daughters are in play. The embittered, overworked Varya is attracted to Lopakhin but can't elicit a proposal from him, while the beautiful millionaire-magnet Anya seems destined to run off with Trofimov, an inspired waster who talks like a metaphysical poet but dresses like a tramp.

Contradictions abound. Lopakhin, the only materially successful character, is the most spiritually tormented. Gaev, a ridiculous loser, seems permanently animated by happiness while Trofimov, clearly a genius, is incapable of turning his dazzling intellect to any useful purpose. Conleth Hill gives Lopakhin plenty of sardonic wit, and James Laurenson's rumpled, bumbling Gaev is a pleasure to watch.

The lead is played by Zoe Wanamaker, an actress whose central appeal I've never successfully located. She isn't a comedienne, particularly, or a tragedienne either, but a sort of intermedienne, her presence not helped by those Emin-ish eyes and a voice that lacks power or expressive variety. Her face is of the sort that moved a kinder age to euphemisms, 'characterful', 'experienced', perhaps. …

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