The Cherry Orchard review: Ian McKellen is funny and touching in a deeply eloquent production

The second in the Theatre Royal’s two-play season, Martin Sherman’s droll, deadpan interpretation of Chekhov’s final play is a brilliant showcase for McKellen’s talent

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 20 October 2021 14:18
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<p>Francesca Annis (Ranyevskaya) and Ian McKellen (Firs) in ‘The Cherry Orchard'</p>

Francesca Annis (Ranyevskaya) and Ian McKellen (Firs) in ‘The Cherry Orchard'

A wag might joke that with his extraordinary performance as Firs in Martin Sherman’s droll, deadpan and deeply eloquent version of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, Sir Ian McKellen has finally learnt to act his age. The current two-play season at the Theatre Royal, Windsor began in July when McKellen took to stage thrillingly as Shakespeare’s most searching protagonist. Hamlet is 31; Sir Ian is 82. By dint of a great actor’s electric powers of self-belief, he made the age difference feel irrelevant.

Here he goes to the opposite end of the spectrum. Firs is 87 and semi-senile. He is the ancient retainer of the Ranesky family, whose retinue come back from a five-year chequered sojourn in Paris. Firs is beside himself with happiness. McKellen is bald and has a bushy, white Tolstoyan beard. He dodders around the stage; his infirm feet lurch in alarming tangents, as the feet of old folk sometimes do. He is in his element being able to serve the family again. But he is not remotely servile.

McKellen milks a lot of funny and touching moments out of this dichotomy. Consider the way he bides his time. When he totters towards the impecunious toffs with a tray of drinks, there is, semi-consciously, a subversive element to the way he keeps them waiting. Overlooked and dying, Firs is alone onstage in the play’s unforgettable waning moments.

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