Bristol Old Vic – 7 April 2018
The year of change is coming to Bristol Old Vic. A new £9 million pound front of house renovation will be unveiled come September along with a shiny new studio that the city has much missed. This distinguished Georgian playhouse, described by Daniel Day-Lewis as “the most beautiful theatre in the world”, will motor into its future, surer than ever.
Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard seems an ideal first play to tackle with that theme in mind, a play that looks very much into its past while peeking delicately into the future. And what a staging Michael Boyd has given it, a piece that teases, tickles and eventually cracks.
It doesn’t spin the wheel with its staging, it’s very much of its time, even if the translation by Rory Mullarkey has a modern vernacular, but it shines a light anew on Chekhov’s last masterpiece. Like his work with Shakespeare, Boyd makes the classics, with their long histories and memorable performances, feel freshly minted. This is an elegant, complex, funny and extraordinary night of theatre. It is one of the best staging’s BOV has produced in the past few years.
It also presents the richest acting ensemble here since Pink Mist. There are 14 individual portraitures all teeming with inner life and technical dexterity. Chekhov, much more than Shakespeare, produces characters as equal and as alive as each other. Not one role feels less than fully inhabited, there are no spear carriers or messengers here.
Kirsty Bushell’s Ranyevskya is the beating heart of this production and is heart-stoppingly good. This is no over privileged airhead blindly charging into disaster, but a woman who sees clearly where her world is headed, but is too distraught, too trapped in a cycle to be able to change it. She gives money away because she sees others need it more, she above all realises there is only ever one way her financial woes can go.
Yet even as her past collapses around her – a child gymnastically vaults around the stage as a constant reminder of the son now drowned – and she stares into the abyss of her future, she is still always a riveting character, funny and seductive, it’s no wonder Jude Owusu’s Lopakhin has carried a torch for her since he was a child.
Owusu plays the part with exactly the right virtuosity. At a time when Bristol is tackling its own problematic past with slavery, Boyd casts the former surfs turned gentry with a black and mixed race cast. It ensures the politics are to the fore as Lopakhin’s speech, delivered moments after his purchase of the cherry orchard starts in wonder and ends in something close to glee. This is a man barely able to comprehend his new position, from a child seeing his ancestors bend their knees and now holding dominion over his former masters. Hayden McLean’s Yasha starts as a cheeky jack the lad stealing kisses and ends a cigar puffing big man breaking hearts without a second glance. As these men see their own fortunes change it’s only Enyi Okoronkwo school teacher Trofimov who can predict the violent repercussions to come (Chekhov’s seeming insight only came into effect some years after his death with the 1919 Russian revolution taking out, mostly literally, the ruling classes of Russia.)
It is also great to see Bristol made talent get a chance to shine. Recent theatre school graduates and Peter O’Toole winners Verity Blyth and Rosy McEwan are terrific as the Ranevsky children, the former all innocent sweetness turned hard and the latter fierce and austere until love turns her fragile. What a delight as well to see Harry Humberstone, a Wardrobe Theatre Christmas show standout, take a different, rougher turn as part of the ensemble.
Moving on to the Royal Exchange, Manchester after Bristol means that designer Tom Piper has had to turn the Bristol Old Vic’s gilded proscenium into an in the round delight. Its two tiered seating structure on stage, an exact replica of the Georgian auditorium turns the space into something resembling a dolls house theatre. It looks beautiful. The Exchange has many virtues to it but this production won’t look as breath-taking as it does here in Bristol
Boyd’s production sticks close to the label Chekhov prescribed as a comedy in four acts. From the vaudevillian squeaky shoes in the first act to Julius D’Silva’s heightened take as the neighbour on the make it keeps up a fairly regular chuckle quota. Yet Boyd, a master of staging, can turn the mood in an instant, witness the moment as D’Silva thinks he’s lost a bag of money at a party and his world falls apart. It’s a brief moment, all of thirty seconds long but contains in it a world of meaning. The whole 150 minutes is choka full of them.
This is a production that showcases Boyd, his ensemble, Chekhov and Bristol Old Vic at its very best. God I love the theatre when it’s this good.
The Cherry Orchard plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 7 April and then at Manchester Royal Exchange from 19 April- 19 May.