‘How much these walls have seen,’ muses the lady Lyuba in a fond but forlorn farewell to her family home; and, as her hand touches the gorgeous green and gilded walls of the Old Vic, her words touch our hearts, too. The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s so-called comedy about social change in turn-of-the-century Russia following the serf reform, seems cherry-picked for Bristol Old Vic at this time of redevelopment, in their very own Year of Change.
Tom Piper’s invigorating set envelops the Old Vic into the estate that’s up for sale: the architecture is the orchard, we the trees, and, with an audience also onstage in an uncanny recreation of the auditorium, the action plays out in-the-round and uses every inch of the space, from the stairs up to the pit to the passages behind the stalls. As such, we are in the estate: drawn into the drawing room discussions, privy to the privileges – or prejudices – of the occupants, and, occasionally, the only witnesses other than the walls themselves. Yet, we never feel part of the furniture, but as one of the family, although which side you’d fight for – the fallen aristocracy or the striving former serfs – is up to you, or, perhaps more pertinently, your own privileges and point of view.
The Cherry Orchard is no cherry bomb – the pace, especially in the second act, is slow and spun out – but it does blossom under director Michel Boyd. There’s a lounging languor, an idleness, to the action that dislocates the aristocratic estate from the industrial Lopakhin and his desire to purchase the orchard, as demonstrated by his constant checking of his pocket-watch. And, this also pushes him further from Lyuba, who drags out her farewell in a painful, powerful show of letting go of an idealised past to move towards the fairer future that Lopakhin and his fellow former serfs have been waiting for.
Jude Owusu’s Lopakhin may be ruthless, but there’s a sense that what he really wants isn’t the estate, but respect: his speech after purchasing the orchard descends from a drunk, audacious display into something much darker, charging the audience as he does the aristocrats with the line ‘don’t laugh at me!’. The casting of actors of colour as the former serfs and those in servitude against the white aristocrats can’t be a coincidence, and the use of the word ‘slaves’ in Rory Mullarkey’s otherwise wit-filled translation works, weighting the play in a present still plagued by similar oppositions to Chekhov’s characters. At the other end of the class spectrum is Kirsty Bushell’s Lyuba, whose performance is impressive in keeping an endearing naivety to her denial, a blindness to the benefits that her position befits, and a playfulness to her frivolity, and performances across the piece are just as nuanced. Each captures that balance between comedy and tragedy that so infuses Chekhov’s work, and in doing so creates a whole orchard of characters that enrich and enrage in equal measure.
The walls of Bristol Old Vic have seen change, but they’ve also seen magic and mischief and some truly meaningful moments: if The Cherry Orchard is a mark of things to come in this Year of Change, then there’s so much more to see.
Written by @_leahtozer