Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ disappoints at Hackney’s Arcola

cherry orchard chekov

Famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard as a satirical comedy, but in his old age he was unable to prevent influential Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski from deciding it was a tragedy. This set a precedent that has been followed by other productions, including the one at The Arcola Theatre.

That in itself is a tragedy, because The Cherry Orchard, here in an English translation by Trevor Griffiths, is really very funny. Madame Ranevskaya returns to her childhood home, a wonderful mansion next to a cherry orchard, which is in danger of being repossessed. Despite this, her family, servants and hangers-on largely ignore the problem, pursuing a life of decadent ignorance, while the property they love slips away beneath them.

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Every character is a parody of a type of person you might see in an aristocratic household. Epikhodov, in a stand-out performance by Simon Scardifield, hangs around despite being impossibly clumsy, totally useless, and painfully awkward. Scardifield can’t go two minutes without breaking something, eliciting laughter without fail, and his sincerity makes him sympathetic. The parody is backed up by something genuine, a pattern emulated in the best characters and performances, like ditzy maid Dunyasha (Lily Wood) and deaf, dying manservant Firs (Robin Hooper).

With many of the aristocratic characters, that satire is unfortunately lost in the attempt to make the plot tragic. Madame Ranevskaya’s brother, Leonid Gayev (Jack Klaff), is often funny, bringing every situation down to grandstanding and billiards metaphors. But just as often, his willful ignorance is played seriously, to the point of melodrama. It doesn’t work, for the same reason that embedding chocolate chips in a rock doesn’t make it sweeter.

The same problem applies to family friend Peter Trofimov (Abhin Galeya), whose speech on the pointlessness of the aristocracy is somehow not properly undercut by the fact that he’s never finished his degree or done anything with his life. The issue is systemic, and director Mehmet Ergen (also Artistic Director at the Arcola) has to take responsibility for that.

Despite poor artistic choices, production was strong

The production values are reasonably high. The stage, surrounded on three sides by  audience, is dominated by a tall, white bookcase with a white tree trunk running through it, becoming bare branches that hang over the cast.

The costumes have been dragged from early 20th-century Russia into the present day; it’s a shame that it jars slightly with how thoroughly “period” the play is.

But for what it’s worth, the costumes are appropriate and thoughtfully decided. The shifts in costume between scenes are impressive, and certainly add up, given that there are 12 primary characters and four acts. Those changes contribute to a sense of passing time, an essential element of the plot. Props are extensive too, adding realism where many productions on this scale rely on mimed items.

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There was always a risk that this massive set piece and the thrust staging would make seeing the majority of the play impossible, but the blocking generally worked well in the space. The actors managed to avoid any serious issues by playing forward from the bookcase.

Where this production really falls down is its handling of genre. Ergen was certainly right to take a side in the argument between Stanislavski and Chekhov. The fault lies in making that disagreement so obvious. The rift between the comedy and the tragedy onstage is so striking that it detracts from both. Like its characters, The Cherry Orchard is a play that hasn’t made a tough decision

(Photo credits: all photos by Robert Workman)