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A modern way of doing Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard Review

It often feels like versions of Chekhov can be categorised neatly into either the “traditional” realist productions or the modern adaptations. So, in place of Chekhov’s gun, reviews of productions seem to operate on the principle of Chekhov’s samovar. If the set includes a samovar, reviewers are sure to tell you about it, and, if not, they let you know all the same. For the majority of Harry Brook’s Cherry Orchard, which showed at The Oxford Playhouse in Week 2, we are faced with a production that looks as realist as they come. Isabelle Kori’s set design and Ailish Guaghan’s costume design complement each other to keep the first three acts looking period. It’s fair to say that there’s not much in the set that is distinctly Russian: when Isle-Lee van Niekerk’s Lyubov declares ‘I love this country’, the house she owns doesn’t seem to give us any evidence of the claim. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Part of what is so interesting about the Russian gentry Chekhov brought to the stage is their disconnect from the vast majority of the people that surrounded them. Will Shackleton, whose Yasha is desperate to leave for Paris, convincingly plays his discontent not with Russia as Russia, but rather with Russia as nothing at all

If the look of the production is traditional, then Esme Buzzard’s translation is distinctly fresh. This might be the old Chekhov of the country estate, but in Buzzard’s rendering it contains ‘goddamn bookcases’ and is approached by ‘fuckoff railways’. The present-day vernacular is relished by all the actors, with Jules Upson’s Lopakhin feeling remarkably reminiscent of today’s smarmy corporate busybodies. Brook’s direction is equally unafraid to bring out parts of Chekhov’s characters which older productions might have left only implied: the staging of Yasha’s relationship with Catty Claire Williams Boyce’s Dunyasha is immediate and uncompromising. At one point they even enter with Yasha zipping his flies and Dunyasha wiping her lips. The stand-out performance, though, is undeniably Van Niekerk’s Lyubov. She brings deep emotion to all aspects of her performance, but most impressive is the sheer strength of her voice. A theatre the size of the Oxford Playhouse presents a challenge to untrained student actors that doesn’t arise at smaller venues like the Pilch, yet van Niekerk’s lines are especially resonant.

By the end of the third act, what we seem to have is an impressively well-executed version of Chekhov’s classic. The realism works as is intended, and Brook has integrated a new sensibility to a long established way of doing Chekhov. The fourth and final act brings this to another level. Lopakhin, the nouveau-riche grandson of a serf, buys the estate at auction. Here we see Chekhov’s abiding concern with the replacement of Russia’s indebted aristocracy, so that he now seems prophetic of the events of 1917. The decline of the landed gentry and the old Europe also precipitated the end of the realist project. If Chekhov foresaw 1917, then 1922 and avant-garde modernism is equally significant. Chekhov is a realist par excellence, but the plays also contain the seeds of their own demise.

So, when in the fourth act we are expecting only the family belongings to be packed up and the cherry orchard to be chopped down, Brook opts to stage the demise of the realist stage itself. Characters, to varying degrees, shed their period costume, and the walls of the house are wheeled around to reveal chipboard backs with director’s notes scribbled on them. The proscenium arch, so often realism’s metonyn, raises itself to reveal the lighting rig hidden behind it. There are productions in which these kinds of twists feel like flashy distractions. Revealing the stage lights runs the risk of seeming gimmicky, or just a copy of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, when Will asks ‘If we so rich, why we can’t afford no ceiling?’ before the camera pans up to the lighting rig. In Brooks’ version, though, since the realism was taken seriously, it feels like the twist has been earnt. Each actor remains on stage throughout the act (this, alongside the chipboard, seems a nod towards Jamie Lloyd’s version of The Seagull at The National Theatre), conversations appear fleeting, and we become aware that the social relations which the characters are so consumed by are – at the Playhouse in 2024 but also in the Russian provinces of the fin-de-siecle – performed. Rosie Mahendra, who is strong throughout but especially so in the final act, leads the troupe off stage, and the upstage wall opens to show the outside world, complete with a Madri tent. Only Joe Rachman’s Firs is left behind. Once he lies motionless on stage, sound designer Iona Blair baits the audience into tentative applause, before we hear the final sounds of chainsaws and falling trees.

In the first act, Cosimo Avisio’s Gaev had announced ‘If a large number of cures is suggested for a particular disease, it means the disease is incurable’, and perhaps the same is true of Chekhov. His plays contain so many possibilities, so many interpretations, that to put them on is to come to terms with the fact that you can’t do justice to them all. Harry Brook has done justice to more than most.

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