Adaptor-director Eamon Flack’s production of Anton Chekhov’s final play takes the author at his word.
The Cherry Orchard is a comedy above all else – even if, in the end, it leaves the audience with the discomforting image of an old man left to die of neglect in an abandoned house.
Flack and his cast have developed a boisterous performance style for the show, one that involves a lot of galloping on and off and an outbreak of choreographed Italo-disco dancing. If your idea of the perfect Chekhov involves linen suits and languor, all this may come as a surprise. Not for nothing is the play now set in “Rushia”.
But beneath the caffeinated energy of the characters and their sometimes cacophonous interactions, you feel the currents of a serious underlying thesis: that we as a society – indeed, as a civilisation – owe debts that go far beyond those of mortgagee to lender, or tenant to landlord.
Ranevskaya (played here by Pamela Rabe) has just returned from Paris. She’s flat broke, having been taken for a romantic ride. Her only remaining asset is the beloved family estate and its cherry orchard. The whole lot is about to go under the auctioneer’s hammer.
But peasant-entrepreneur Lopakhin (Mandela Mathia), the son of a former serf on the estate, has a proposition that – if Ranevskaya accepts it – might at least save the house from the bulldozer and provide a steady income for the future (one she will fritter away, no doubt).
Sell off the orchard, he begs her. Fell the trees and use the land to build riverside chalets for tourists.
Ranevskaya refuses to sell. Haunted by the death of her young son many years ago and clinging to her youthful memories, she is paralysed by indecision. So too, by extension, is her family. One way or another, their dithering spells their doom.
This production is a handsomely populated one – a cast of 12 – and between them they create an entertaining gallery characters.
Mathia delivers a cheery, open-hearted Lopakhin, whose desire to help Ranevskaya out of her predicament seems genuine – or at least not entirely motivated by the prospect of a quick profit.
Josh Price mines the comic potential in the bothersome and perennially broke Pischick. So does Lucia Mastrantone as the family’s eccentric governess.
Keith Robinson’s Gaev (Ranevskaya’s brother) is relatively underplayed but is always funny and quick to tears.
Sarah Meacham’s Dunyasha all but bounces off the walls while Charles Wu’s too-cool-for-school Yasha stands out for his stillness and studied poise. Peter Carroll’s Firs, the family’s ancient butler, is perfection.
Priscilla Doueihy (playing the permanent undergrad Petya) and Kirsty Marillier (Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya) strike some sparks. Not so Lopakhin and Nadie Kammallaweera’s Varya, whose unresolved relationship lacks intensity if not awkwardness.
It’s Ranevskaya’s show, however, and when she’s on stage, Rabe captivates with her sympathetic portrayal of a heart-led, impulsive woman doing her best to hold back the tides of unresolved grief, romantic unhappiness and future catastrophe. Her rapport with Robinson creates a believable sibling bond.