"There's just too much space," I said as we filed out for the interval. Sometimes that happens in an arena such as that of Chichester's Festival Theatre. The actors in this current revival of The Cherry Orchard seemed adrift in search of the play, their characters lost in the vast spaces of the all-but-empty set.
The orchard as metaphor is close to my heart at present, since a neighbouring apple orchard is about to be swallowed up by the insatiable demands of a burgeoning elderly population and the greed of developers. Chekhov's orchard, though, represents a more significant moment in time, as the old, selfish and corrupt regime is about to be consumed by the idealistic fervour of the newly emergent proletariat. However, in his view, this brave new world would be as pointlessly flawed as its predecessor. The orchard, though, is only a metaphor – a glorious stand of trees bearing flowers, fruit and memories in equal measure – but it is the negligence and selfishness of mankind that threaten its existence.
The people in this production seemed to have little significance as fully fledged characters, their roles restricted to ciphers as they rushed about, entering and exiting, to no clear purpose. The action lurched between tragedy and farce, but never quite found its footing. Had something perhaps been lost in translation?
What it seemed to lack was cohesive direction, something to make its disparate characters coalesce into a company that could deliver Chekhov's message that society can change irrevocably when we have our backs turned. Diana Rigg's Madame Ranyevskaya is believable as a vacuous socialite trading on a fading beauty, but much less so as a charismatically tragic matriarchal figure. She needs to be both, though, if she is to represent Russia as a grande dame in the process of being usurped by her subjects and turning a blind eye to it.
Other characters, too, remained stereotypically mired in two-dimensional caricature: tottering retainer, servants overstepping class boundaries, limply aristocratic youth, ineffectual intellectual. The inadequacies of most of the character development were thrown into sharp relief by the impressive performance of Jemma Redgrave as Varya, who gave by far the most convincing performance.
There remains much in Chekhov that has parallels with problems facing society today. Sadly, however, this production failed to deliver the playwright's tragicomic and, for its time, subversive message.
To 7 Jun (01243 781 312)
Jenny Powell, writer, Storrington, West Sussex
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