After a troublesome year of intermittent lockdown and cancelled productions, Theatre Royal Windsor finally reopened early in the summer with a universally acclaimed staging of Hamlet, led by Sir Ian McKellen and directed by Sean Mathias. It was a record-breaking production that was extended week after week until the end of September.
The same stellar company, joined by Martin Shaw, is now presenting The Cherry Orchard, a melancholic comedy/tragedy written by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) in 1903. It was the last play written by Chekhov opening at the Moscow Art Theatre on 17th January 1904.
McKellen takes a step back, after playing the lead role in Hamlet, by performing a secondary role in the story, but still manages to leave his unmistakable mark and the audience begging for more.
The production feels very intimate, partly because the theatre is not very big, partly because some of the audience are allowed to sit on the stage, encompassing every scene. The setting is kept very simple, a few rugs, some furniture, virtually no backdrop, just the theatre concrete wall, letting people concentrate on the play but also visualising the end of an era for a once-wealthy Russian family.
In a nutshell, the story is not very complicated, but give Chekhov the chance to explore a lot of different characters and to paint a beautiful human tapestry of broken dreams, tragedies, and modernity taking over the old world; it starts when Madame Ranyevskaya, masterfully played by Francesca Annis, returns to her native country estate in Russia (The Cherry Orchard in the title is a beautiful part of it), after a time spent in Paris in a dysfunctional relationship, finding the place overwhelmed by debts and in need to be sold to pay creditors.
Madame Ranyevskaya is stuck in the past, in a world of memories that do not exist anymore, she is absolutely against selling the estate, but is also incapable of accepting ideas on how to make it profitable, or how to change it. She is surrounded by the rest of her colourful family, their servants and friends, played by some very talented and experienced actors. Let me mention Jenny Seagrove playing Gaev, an eccentric and talkative uncle that tries to save the estate but lacking the real drive to do it; Robert Daws, portraying Pishchik, another penniless landowner struggling to find his place in the new society; Ben Allen, playing Trofimov, an eternal student, that thinks he is “above love” and fights for a new society based on ideals, but who is also unable to move forward in his own life.
Martin Shaw plays Lopakhin, in some way the family nemesis, a very rich self-made man; son of a peasant and servant to the aristocratic family, he is now a successful businessman, whose ideas to turn the estate around are constantly rebutted by the family and that will end up buying the estate, and destroying the cherry orchard to build summer cottages, representing the new world taking over the old ways.
Sir Ian McKellen plays Firs, the valet to Uncle Gaev, making the character unforgettable. He does not speak much, mumbles a lot, moves around the scenes leaving his silent mark, he is eccentric but also loyal to the family. Part of me left craving for more of McKellen, but Annis, Shaw, Seagrove and the rest of the cast were so masterful in their roles that I was not left short-changed, and the three-hour duration of the play did not feel too long at any point.
It was a joy going back to live theatre after 18 months of intermittent lockdown and I really enjoyed this production and this amazing company. If you want to see acting at its best, in its pure and raw power, without expensive special effects and stage trickery, I suggest you get tickets to see this production of The Cherry Orchard in Windsor; you may not laugh out loud, but there are plenty of chuckles and the depiction of a colourful human tapestry and personal limitations and flaws that will remain with you for a long time.
Review by Fabio Ghiotto
Ranyevskaya returns following a five-year absence to discover her estate, including her beloved cherry orchard, is to be auctioned off to pay debts accrued by the family in Chekhov’s theatrical masterpiece. Francesca Annis stars as Ranyevskaya, Ian McKellen as Firs, Martin Shaw as Lopakhin, Jenny Seagrove as Gaev and Robert Daws as Pischick.
The Company & Creatives
ALIS WYN DAVIES
ASHLEY D GAYLE
DIRECTOR – SEAN MATHIAS
ADAPTOR – MARTIN SHERMAN
SET DESIGNER – LEE NEWBY
LIGHTING DESIGNER – NICK RICHINGS
COMPOSER & SOUND DESIGNER – ADAM CORK
ASSOCIATE SOUND DESIGNER – GILES THOMAS
COSTUME DESIGNER – LOREN ELSTEIN
WIGS & MAKE-UP DESIGNER – SUSANNA PERETZ
FIGHT DIRECTOR – BRET YOUNT
ILLUSIONIST CONSULTANT – WILL HOUSTOUN
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – SOPHIE DRAKE
LITERAL TRANSLATOR – SVETLANA DARDLIA
1st October – 13th November 2021