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The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Sasha Dugdale

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BBC Radio 3, 21 December 2008
 
Peter Kavanagh's revival vividly created a portrait of Russian society in profound transition, as the old world of the landed gentry represented by Madame Ranevskaya (Sarah Miles) and Gaev (Nicholas le Prevost) is gradually superseded by nouveaux riches like Lopakhin (Matthew Mason). Lopakhin made valiant efforts to forge an alliance between the two worlds through marriage, but this remained no more than a pipe-dream. The action proceeds inexorably towards the conclusion, with Ranevskaya's family being forced out and Lopakhin chopping the trees in the orchard down. There is no place for sentimentality in his mind; the land needs to be developed as soon as possible to provide summer-houses (or dachas) for other nouveaux riches.
 
What made this revival more poignant, however, was the way in which Ranevskaya's family tried and failed to deal with their impending doom. Although painfully short of money, they retained a Micawberesque belief that something would turn up. Until that time came, it was best to forget about the crisis altogether and discuss something else. The production was full of conversational gambits, as Ranevskaya's family tried to find ways of avoiding the inevitable. However uncomfortable reality kept intruding - as demonstrated by the frequent pregnant pauses punctuating the dialogue. On several occasions director Kavanagh invested Chekhov's text with a Pinteresque quality, as the characters stooped speaking and searched frantically for something to say.
 
While understanding Ranaveskaya's plight, however, we were not invited to sympathize with her. As portrayed by Sarah Miles, she rather resembled Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire - a once-prosperous woman buoying herself up with fantasies of a new life elsewhere with a prosperous Count. At the same time she displayed a quite stunning callousness towards her servants. The old retainer Firs (Malcolm Tierney) was treated like a child, despite his unwavering loyalty towards her. Ranevskaya had so little concern for him that she left him alone at the end to fend for himself in an empty house.
 
Chekhov described his great plays as comedies - a point often overlooked in modern revivals. Kavanagh took great care to underline the absurdly comic elements of The Cherry Orchard, as the characters remained imprisoned by their obsessions. Simeonov-Pishchik (Roger Hammond) perpetually touched the family for a loan to cover his debts, despite the fact they had nothing to give him. When the tables were turned - and Pishchik came into money after having sold some of his land to English speculators - no one had the heart to request anything from him. The reason was obvious; although Pishchik had obtained short-term relief from financial worry, he had also signed away his inheritance. Like Madame Ranevskaya he was condemned to a rootless existence.
 
Other comic elements emerged in the performance of Inam Mirza as the servant Yasha. He resembled a trickster-figure with his Liverpudlian accent, commenting cynically in asides on the shortcomings of Ranevskaya's life and his hopes for future prosperity in Lopakhin's employ.
 
Written in 1904, The Cherry Orchard still has the capacity to affect listeners in a contemporary world where old ways are repeatedly cast aside in the search for 'a better life.' The limitations of this outlook only emerge at times of economic crisis, when people experience major social upheavals, similar to those of Ranevskaya's family.  Like many classic revivals broadcast on Radio 3 this year, this production offered new insights on familiar material.