An intimate theatre setting is always going to be my favourite. Small audiences, close to the stage, no matter where’re you’re sitting, and that feeling of the fourth wall being so close that you literally are the fly on the wall (and for this drama student a throwback to the days of drama studios and confined spaces) The Cherry Orchard at London’s Union Theatre is no exception.
Before we get any further, I’m going to preface this with saying that I’m the Theatre kid that loved Chekhov and Ibsen at school. I’m also the English Literature kid that devoured Orwell and Huxley, and I’m a Stargate fan. Why is this all important? Simple. Suanne Braun was the reason that at least half of the audience were in the theatre last night. She was our Hathor, Mother of All Goa’uld in Stargate SG-1, and we were all eager to see her perform. But for me, it was my fifth adaptation of this Chekov play that has always had a place in my heart.
The set evoked the crumbling estate perfectly, the decaying walls of the building, the moss growing up through the floorboards, walls falling down around them, the set design perfectly echoed the era in which Chekhov’s play was set. Yes the theatre geek in me was happy to note the tiny details like the plant life between the floorboards, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust definitely did the production justice in this regard.
I’m a Chekhov purest at heart, you might have guessed that from the fact this is the fifth adaptation that I’ve seen. But even that didn’t stop me loving this one. This production had one major and vital change in that the Bolsheviks took the estate. Something that doesn’t happen with the original. And perhaps that’s the reason that amidst the chaotic feelings of the end, I still found myself crying with Ranyevskaya as her world crumbled around her. Or perhaps it was the fact that as Lopakhin and Trofimov discussed the past and the future, she sat their silently staring out at her beloved orchard, weeping silently.
Braun’s portrayal of Ranyevskaya was, quite frankly, sublime, and I’m not just saying that as a fan of the sci-fi franchise that introduced me to her work, or a fan of her body of cinematic work (I will admit to having purchased Fleshtone and Starhyke because once I find myself enjoying someone’s work, I want to watch more of it), but because she pulls the audience in. You ride her emotional rollercoaster with her, wishing that she really could forget about her financial worries, and not wanting to blame her for her desire to run away from her troubles into a world of fantasy. Braun showcases the rapid emotional shifts that Ranyevska is prone to with a beautiful fluidity that makes them completely relatable and believable for the audience. It’s breathtaking to watch.
The cohesiveness of the cast is beautiful. I’ve been to other productions near the end of the run and found that by this time, the cast have been a little shoddy when it comes to their interaction with each other (yes even professional productions) and their hearts aren’t really in it, but that wasn’t the case with The Cherry Orchard’s cast. From Anya to Charlotta to Yasha, the way in which the cast portrayed the relationships between the characters was just perfection. I have to give a mention here to Molly Crookes for her performance as Dunyasha, the maid. The way in which she portrayed Dunyasha’s feelings for Yasha, her disdain for Yyepikhodov, her flirtatious nature, it all fitted the nature of the character in a way that is often missed in productions of this play. She’s often played as flighty and silly, whereas I found Crooke’s performance showed her humanity.
Caroline Wildi’s Pishchik on the other hand, was exactly as air headed as she should have been. Her lack of understanding that others around her were often in a worse state than she, the wistful look in her eyes when she talked of her dancing days and her dear father were just right. Lakesha Cammock was a wonderful browbeaten Varya whose sensibility was a stark and brilliant contrast to Braun’s emotional frivolity and Lucy Menzies’ ideologically naive Anya. Richard Gibson’s Gaev (Ranyevskaya’s brother) was a performance that will stick with me as a portrayal of the dementia that hits those in later years. Having lost both my grandmother and an uncle to different types of the harrowing fate that is dementia, I was struck by the truth in his performance. How coherence and lucidity mixed with bouts of nonsense and memory.
I feel guilty for not going into depth on each and every performance within the production, but truth is that I could be here for hours if I did. And I still wouldn’t do them all justice. I’ve chosen just a few highlights from this wonderful show. And if you’re able to see it before it closes tomorrow, Saturday 7th April, I recommend you do. It’s most definitely one that shouldn’t be missed. But as I said, it’s a small theatre and tickets are on a first come, first served basis.
The production is at The Union Theatre, Old Union Arches, 229 Union Street, London, SE1 0LR. www.uniontheatre.biz