In many ways this is one of the very best productions I have seen of Chekhov's greatest play, which I first encountered in Chichester half a century ago. Mehmet Ergen's casting is inspired, and he allows the actors to fully explore the many intricate relationships between the characters. From Sian Thomas as Ranevskaya, giggling her way through Lopakhin's plan to avoid the sale of the cherry orchard by building holiday cottages, to Lily Wood as Dunyasha the flighty maid, every role is fully developed but also balanced as part of an ensemble. Jack Klaff is the best Gayev I have seen and Jade Williams as Varya, vainly hoping for a proposal from Lopakhin, creates a heartbreaking moment when he fails to pop the question. Jude Akuwudike conveys Lopakhin's lack of emotional intelligence and education very well, while Abhin Galeya conveys the priggish certainties of Trofimov the eternal student with an understated power. The other minor characters all shine too, while the almost complete absence of any set in the confined space of the Arcola means that the audience can use its imaginaton..
Some great directors manage to get this play badly wrong; I wasn't greatly impressed with Sam Mendes' production at the Old Vic in 2009 as part of the transatlantic Bridge Project, though it had its moments. I felt Simon Russell Beale was cast against type as the boorish Lopakhin. And I hated the late Howard Davies' version of the play at the National Theatre, which wrenched it away from its period, inserted extra speeches by the adapter Andrew Upton and wrecked Chekhov's subtle comedy. Ergen gets almost everything right, but like most British directors, he ignores the rich social and political context of the play. Chekhov was writing a play not just about individual characters but about the decline of the Russian gentry class, the prelude to revolution and the social mobility that allows the peasant's son Lopakhin to buy the estate and chop down the cherry orchard. For me, these are important elements in the play, but they are missing here. All the characters are put into modern dress, which creates a sense of social equality that is at odds with Chekhov's play. The uneasy relationship between the feckless gentry family, their hangers-on and the hard-working but insensitive Lopakhin is a complex one, and it relies heavily on their different social status. Firs the aged retainer represents the rural world before the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, while Yasha the valet, Dunyasha the maid and Yepikhodov the clerk all have modern ideas above their station. Unfortunately the choice of contemporary 21st century dress, British in style, blurs all these distinctions and tensions.
I used to take a hard line against anyone who tried to update or adapt Chekhov or move his plays out of Russia. Since seeing Anya Reiss's thoughtful modern versions of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, I'm less doctrinaire today. But if a director wants to put Chekhov into a modern setting outside Russia, it's important to be consistent and find a modern context that is a fully thought-through alternative to the original. This is an excellent production but I can't help feeling that a closer attention to the original Russian social context would have made it even better.