mon 20/05/2024

The Cherry Orchard, Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican review - stunning absurdist Chekhov | reviews, news & interviews

The Cherry Orchard, Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican review - stunning absurdist Chekhov

The Cherry Orchard, Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican review - stunning absurdist Chekhov

Sex and technology run like faultlines through this work

Victoria Isakova and Alexander Petrov lead the cast

There is no doubt that this Cherry Orchard, whirled into town by Roman Abramovich from Moscow, is going to be divisive.

If you, like the two elegant old gentlemen sat next to me on press night, have come to see the Pushkin Drama Theatre’s production in order to steep yourself in Chekhov’s philosophical ambiguities and perhaps brush up on your Russian, you will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to be blown away by a stunningly beautiful absurdist interpretation that captures, like no other Chekhov production you’ve seen, the way the world can teeter between exhausted decadence and revolution, then head straight to the Barbican.

Vladimir Mirzoev’s production is lit by the awareness that when The Cherry Orchard premiered in 1904, it would be just a year before Russia lurched into its first uprising. That sense of imminent upheaval is captured vividly by Alexander Lisyansky’s set, with the stage set at a rake, as if propelled upwards by an earthquake. When the first actors appear, they are illuminated by lighting that comes from below the floor, setting up a visual trope in which memories of the past appear to rise up as if from the grave. The sense that these are people living in a twilight zone between death and life is added to by the frequent ghostly appearances of Grisha, Madame Ranevskaya’s seven-year-old son, whose tragic drowning five years before prompted her flight to Paris.

Lopakhin’s rush to turn history and tradition into lucrative real estate has plenty of resonance for modern Russians

Sex and technology run like faultlines through this world, which, like ours, teeters so visibly on the brink. It sets the tone for this production that when we first see Anastasia Mitrazhik’s Dunyasha and Alexander Petrov’s serf-turned-landowner, Lopakhin, they are engaged in sultry dalliance as they discuss Madame Ranevskaya’s imminent return. In the original, coaches bring Ranevskaya's family on the final leg of the journey from France: here, in a stunning coup de théatre, the "front door" lifts from the stage and beams light into the audience as if to suggest an oncoming train. It’s the train, after all, that is most radically changing this world: it is allowing people and ideas to travel more quickly than they ever have, as well as turning the cherry orchard into a viable property development. (And it will, indeed, be a sealed steam train that will eventually bring Lenin from Switzerland, ensuring the 1917 Russian Revolution has its lasting impact.)

Celebrated Russian actress Victoria Isakova plays Madame Ranevskaya in a sensually confident, rebelliously intelligent performance. When – rather than descending from the train she rises up from it, her family is congregated behind her, taking in their old surroundings as if hypnotised by memory. In the background, a group of musicians play violin, zither, and double bass, to evoke the dream-like sense of disorientation. Later the music will become more visceral, as the cast dances to Kasabian’s Bumblebee, "What can I do now when nothing’s the same?/And all that I know I wanna do it again," madly, ecstatically conveying the sense of a world where everyone’s losing control.The Cherry Orchard, BarbicanOne of several interesting innovations is the reinvention of Charlotta, the German governess, as a mystic, almost Rasputin-like figure, who, with her flaming red hair, acts like a tantalising alter ego for Isakova’s Ranevskaya. Whereas in more conventional productions, she simply performs magic tricks, here she acts more like a shaman, conjuring up the sickly spirits of a dying world. In this production, it should pretty much go without saying that we have no cherry orchard: what we do get is a sudden forest of blood transfusion devices to which the characters attach themselves. Summoned up by Charlotta, the image potentially demonstrates how the cherry orchard simultaneously sustains this community and becomes a symbol of their sickness.

In the first half Mirzoev’s radical take works well, though it does teeter slightly towards indulgence after the interval. That said, as with all intelligently inventive directors, when you rush to check the more traditional text afterwards you realise that far from departing from the original, he has often cleverly mined meanings that were previously invisible. In terms of what this production says about today’s world, Lopakhin’s rush to turn history and tradition into lucrative real estate has plenty of resonance for modern Russians. Yet it remains most breathtaking for its summing up of that moment at the start of the 20th century where all certainties dissolved and the world changed irrevocably forever.


The sense of imminent upheaval is vividly conveyed by a set that rises up as if ruptured by an earthquake


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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