A Russian aristocrat, Ranevskaya, returns to her home with her family after some time in Paris, mourning the loss of her son. In her, Julia Hills plays a woman who nervously flits between a deflecting childish playfulness and the melodramatic outbursts of someone struggling to cope, not least with the elephant in the room that is the overdue mortgage. With bare walls and minimal furniture, the Rose seems cavernous enough to accommodate such an imposing dark cloud and as the more the action progresses, the more desperation and paralysis bubbles up.
There is a fine balance between tragic and absurd, and I think this production was good at finding the comedy and could have afforded to delve into the tragic a little more, perhaps with more lucidity from Hills to show a connection to the reality of her own situation. It is a good performance and Ranevskaya is able to analyse other characters’ problems even if she seems completely oblivious to her own. Benjamin O’Mahony as perpetual student Trofimov and Simon Armstrong’s Lopakhin are excellent as the harbingers of what’s to come. O’Mahony delivers his philosophical monologue with Trofimov’s growing confidence and is greatly watchable. Armstrong too is perfectly cast as the peasant-turned-landowner. Some of the younger cast members, however, addressed a little too much of their dialogue to the floor and for those of us at the back of the auditorium, the more nuanced performances of the young ladies were lost at times.
Comic timing is very important in a play like this and the cast excel in pitching the laughs at the right point. Saskia Portway’s Charlotta matches an independent spirit with a dry melancholy as she polishes her gun, and Paul Nicholson as the ageing footman Firs is a continual source of laughter. Paul Brendan’s physical humour, derived from the nervousness of Yepikhodov, is both charming and hilarious in equal measure, making his clumsy and awkward characterisation seem effortless and natural.
Andrew Hilton’s staging makes full and good use of the space both on and off stage. Through sound and shadows, we can believe the merrymaking and billiard playing that takes place in other rooms. He keeps things simple with only the essentials of props, costume and set. Even Yasha’s one cigar is just enough to spread the smell of smoke through the auditorium. The balcony at the back of the stage provides height and depth to the Gaev household and light pours down onto the floor giving the suggestion of grand windows looking out onto the cherry orchard. The staging is cunning to represent both the grandeur of the past which Ranevskaya and her brother desperately hold on to and the poverty of the present as the debts go unpaid. The pace drops a little in the second half but Hilton's direction allows the play to otherwise flow through the two hours and twenty minutes with the audience’s full attention.
If you’re unfamiliar with Chekov’s work, this is certainly a good example of the play, but it is notoriously difficult to categorise: somewhere between the comedy that Chekov originally wrote and the tragedy that it was as first performed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. The main theme in Hilton’s production is clearly realised: the impotence of the ruling class as society reshuffles around them. Hilton has taken the decision to focus on how each character is individually trapped inside their story without any means to better themselves. As such, it made it harder to relate to the characters and I didn’t feel as much sympathy towards Ranevskaya as I thought I might. In today’s financial climate, there is also little sympathy for the wealthy who are too caught up in themselves to save themselves. Perhaps the downfall of the aristocracy is more humourous than tragic; maybe, to get the most out of this zeitgeist, Hilton could push the characters of the family higher into their stereotypes so that their fall is further and more satisfying.