Arcola Theatre, London – until 25 March 2017
Terrific Revolution season, Mehmet Ergen has put together at the Arcola. Along with Gorki’s The Lower Depths, a howl of distress from the underbelly of society now sits Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, whilst Oladipo Agboluaje’s New Nigerians brings us up to date, almost, in the Studio with his African voice.
Ergen himself directs this Cherry Orchard in the 1977 version that Trevor Griffiths originally penned for Richard Eyre during his time as head at the Nottingham Playhouse before Eyre transferred it later to the tv screen in a notable and ground-breaking BBC production starring Judi Dench, Harriet Walter and Anton Lesser amongst others. All three of Ergen’s choices share a sense of society on the brink of change – the Russian predicting the volcanic eruption of the Bolshevik revolution just around the corner. It’s clearly a state with which Ergen empathises.
Who knows what we ourselves are likely to experience in the near future but nobody doubts we are living through a similar imminent upheaval.
In Griffiths’s version it’s most lucidly, eloquently and passionately articulated by Abhin Galeya’s Trofimov – looking coincidentally like a young Anton Lesser – inveighing against the impotence of bourgeois `salon’ debate. Eyes sparkling, he enunciates the sense of new possibilities, a new world, but one only to be achieved by work.
Around him, Ergen’s cast veers between some dazzling craftwork and some rather more leaden. Snipped of sentimentality by Griffiths, Ergen’s contemporary, modern -day Cherry Orchard brings out Chekhov’s amazing capacity to express the awkward and diffident. None of his characters – either those living on the debt-ridden estate or the sudden return home of Sian Thomas’s statuesque Mme Ranevsky – seem able to live in each other’s company for more than a minute.
It makes for some first half unintentional or maybe intentionally stilted moments. But come the second, when the carefully drawn drama breaks, Ergen’s Cherry Orchard delivers pathos in plenty.
I particularly liked Jade Williams’s agonising nun-like Varya and Simon Scardifield (an Ed Hall Propeller company regular) who finds pain and comedy in the accident-prone Epikhodov.
But Chekhov rises and falls by its collective endeavour. Jude Akuwudike’s peasant-cum-landowning Lopakhin has a moment of triumphant ecstasy in the dance which announces his ownership of the treasured Ranevsky cherry orchard – arms splayed out, head thrown back.
And in a story of comings and goings, of loss, wanton carelessness, indolence, and inability to adjust to change, Griffiths’s Ranevsky, having squandered her inheritance is somehow able to contemplate the future with a remarkably strong `Yes’ as she departs.
A production that hasn’t yet quite found its full measure, it’s still one that nourishes and provokes comparisons with our world today. And Thomas has never looked more alluring – the epitome of the `scarlet woman’ – or articulated the pitfalls of love in a woman who’s loved not wisely and given all away in the name of it.