Time is advancing pitilessly on Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya and all those around her. In a matter of months, her family estate and its lovely cherry orchard will be auctioned to settle her debts. It is not just the future that presses down upon the febrile present, but also the past: this is the house that she ran away from when her seven-year-old son, Grisha, drowned. And while the orchard is to her a bittersweet emblem of “my life, my youth, my happiness”, it is to others a symbol of exploitation and human misery. When the businessman Lopakhin, powerfully played by Jude Owusu, gains control of the orchard, it is a triumph to be savoured for the sake of his father and grandfather, who were serfs.
Michael Boyd, the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, studied in Russia, but has waited till long into his career to direct his first play by Chekhov, translated by fellow Russianist and playwright Rory Mullarkey. Their deep engagement with the material shows. The mood of the drama, often difficult to judge, hovers exquisitely between cruelty, tenderness and knockabout humour via moments of fragile pastoral tranquility.
At the centre of a finely balanced cast (with, in this particular performance, Charlotta gamely understudied by assistant director Evan Lordan) is Kirsty Bushell’s compelling Ranyevskaya in all her charm, charisma and utter failure to deal with the world as it is. Tom Piper’s design, which extends the auditorium’s 18th-century timbers, gilding and seating on to the stage, brings the audience fully into this threatened household, with its unrequited, unspoken loves and unquiet, silent ghosts.
That Ranyevskaya’s family are played by white performers, and their staff and ex-serfs largely by BAME actors, gives a painful piquancy to the moment when Grisha’s one-time tutor Pyotr (an impassioned Enyi Okoronkwo) rails against the centuries of slavery on which the estate, and its lovely cherry trees, are built. When the axe finally falls, the sound is as of a giant ticking clock. The world is about to change.