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The Cherry Orchard, Sovremennik, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Cherry Orchard, Sovremennik, Noël Coward Theatre

The Cherry Orchard, Sovremennik, Noël Coward Theatre

Russians soar in third, and final, offering of their first-ever London season

Marina Neelova as a Mme Ranevskya for the ages

Plays these days come not in single spies but in battalions of two, whether you're talking The Master Builder, King Lear or The Cherry Orchard, the last of which closes the visiting Sovremennik Russian theatr

e troupe's three-play season only to resurface at the National's Olivier in May, with Zoë Wanamaker playing the baleful, vainglorious Ranevskaya at this play's wounded heart. Here, then, is a chance to catch Chekhov's last work presented by his countrymen before the Westerners do their number on him (yet again) come spring. And the result? Wanamaker et al have a hard act to follow, let's just start there.

To be honest, I had begun dragging my heels somewhat about this production, having heard distinctly mixed reports about the company's first two London openings, and the fact that some of the ensemble have apparently been living with these roles for years isn't necessarily a virtue. There's always the risk that too prolonged an immersion in a single part will lead to complacency, self-satisfaction or worse. And near the start, as a handful of the leads take to the lip of the stage in a showy tableau vivant that elicits the applause for which it's clearly intended, one fears a collective vanity project. How wrong - happily - one turns out to be.

For that near-total shift in response, one can't credit too highly the overwhelmingly charismatic Ranevskaya of Marina Neelova, a fleshier (and younger) Prunella Scales lookalike who brings to the role a mixture of dolorousness and vivacity that is ravishing to behold. From the outset, you clock the way she and her hyper-loquacious brother Gayev (Igor Kvasha) form both a familial and status-related barrier to the nouveau riche peasant's son, Lopakhin (Sergey Garmash), whose cautionary words about the sale of the orchard fall on a tellingly sychronised crossing of legs from brother and sister that has "stay away" written right across it. (Earlier, offering her hand for Lopakhin to kiss, this Ranevskaya looks in the other direction so she won't have to see him.)

mattcherry2Neelova (pictured right, with Elena Yakovleva as Varya) is revelatory throughout. A vision in flowing cream, then fuschia and finally grey, she intriguingly suggests a flightiness that is less a departure from reality than a response to it: this is a woman who has known too much (dead son, lost love, dwindling finances) and has erected a delicate, girlish dance as a defense against life's abrasions. There's a brilliant moment where she sits up, startled at the sound of two champagne flutes clinking, only then to proceed to jangle the glasses together in a semi-aware surrender to agitation as part of the percussive undertow of existence. And for all her physical elasticity - she all but makes love to the table in the nursery to which she has returned after five years - this Ranevskaya stiffens visibly when confronted with the inevitable reckoning with which the party scene comes crashing to a halt.

If Neelova is the self-evident occasion of Galina Volchek's staging, particular kudos is also due Elena Yakovleva's rivetingly unself-pitying Varya (in some ways the play's best role) and a mock-severe governess from Olga Drozdova, who delivers this most eccentric of Chekhovian "turns" with a rabid German accent and the suggestion that this gleaming-eyed trickster may actually be genuinely bonkers.

Some of the performances don't land. Younger sister Anya (Viktoria Romanenko) is too diffident to engage, and Valentin Gaft, as the abandoned butler Firs, seems too young for the part, just as Valery Shalnykh's "young butler" Yasha would seem to be that character's father. (His mustard-coloured attire, meanwhile, gives off the disconcerting air of Archie Rice on a bad night.) Audience response would suggest that Gaft is the great star in Russian observers' eyes, but his character's fate isn't as moving as the reappearance of the principals in a ghostly, candlelit farewell, the Ranevskys on their way to becoming shadows on the estate where they once shone. (Also worth noting: the felling of the orchard, here unexpectedly accompanied by the grunts of the exertions involved.)

The set by Pavel Kaplevich and Peter Kirillov may not represent the last word - indeed, any word - in sophistication, large, tissue-paper-like trees seeming to intrude into the playing area just as talk of the orchard soon becomes the elephant in the room. But those who prefer their Chekhov deconstructed have ample opportunity elsewhere for that - New York's Wooster Group, for one. Here, for the first time in some while, is the Russian master in the West End, performed in his native tongue and speaking a universal language of displacement and longing. And if you arrived as I did ready to scoff at a self-evidently reverential audience awash in bling (a Broadway opening in a blizzard wouldn't be this given over to fur), well, just wait: the cheers at the curtain call are long, loud and richly deserved.



The Cherry Orchard, National Theatre (2011). Zoë Wanamaker (pictured below) shines in Howard Davies's murky production of Chekhov

Uncle Vanya, The Print Room (2012). Chekhov at his most tenderly intimate

A Provincial Life, National Theatre Wales (2012). Moments of visual beauty punctuate a Chekhov adaptation that struggles to find its focus

Three Sisters, Young Vic (2012) Benedict Andrews' energetic update is stronger on ensemble work than individual performances

Uncle Vanya, Vakhtangov Theatre Company (2012). Anti-naturalistic Russian Chekhov buries humanity under burlesque and mannerism

Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre. Anna Friel, Laura Carmichael and Ken Stott shine bright in Lindsay Posner's production of Chekhov's drama

Longing, Hampstead Theatre (2013). William Boyd's dramatisation of two Chekhov stories with Iain Glen and Tamsin Greig is more pleasant than towering

The Cherry Orchard, Young Vic (2014). Katie Mitchell delivers Chekhov's masterpiece with devastating power

Uncle Vanya/Three Sisters, Wyndham's Theatre (2014). Quiet truth in finely observed ensemble Chekhov from the Mossovet State Academic Theatre

Winter Sleep. Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes Palme d'Or winner, based on Chekhov short stories, is huge in every sense

The Seagull, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (2015). Strikingly staged Chekhov continues a strong season in the park

Uncle Vanya, Almeida Theatre (2016). Robert Icke's lengthy Chekhov revival/reappraisal is largely a knockout

Young Chekhov, National Theatre (2016). Jonathan Kent's three-play Chekhovathon builds to a shattering climax

Wild Honey, Hampstead Theatre (2016). Early Chekhov begins strongly then falls away

Neelova brings to Ranevskaya an overwhelming charisma and vivacity that is ravishing to behold


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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