An Empty Sleeve production at Kino Teatr Reviewed by Elizabeth Allen

The Cherry Orchard is a famously slippery play. While Chekhov declared this, his last drama, to be a comedy with farcical elements, the first production, by Stanislavski at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1904, was played as a tragedy. Since the text will support either approach, a story of sadness and loss but with certain moments unarguably comic, the director has a powerful role in determining its effects. Is the aristocratic Madame Ranevskaya returning from Paris to find her estate, including the cherry orchard, about to be sold at auction, a representative of a feckless class quite properly doomed by the changes predicted by the revolutionary ideas of Trofimov, the eternal student? Or an openhearted, and open-pursed woman, doomed indeed, but morally superior to the entrepreneurial peasant Lopakhin who plans to commit the sin of cutting down the orchard? (The preservation of trees is always a moral index in Chekhov). And how are we to take the baffling Charlotta, whose only function appears to be performing magic tricks?

This Empty Sleeve production gave the audience space to decide on the drama’s sympathies, with none of the major characters presented as worthy only of ridicule or hostility. Mme Ranevskaya (Annie Packham) was dignified and charming, Lopakhin (Steven Langley), a decent pragmatist who did not glory maliciously in his acquisition of the orchard and ability to destroy. Daughter Anya’s (Olivia Sewell) girlish reactions trembled affectingly between laughter and tears. Yet this light hand had its downside: a sense of poignancy and loss, even given the affecting violin music, never gripped sufficiently. The news of the sale of the estate and the orchard did briefly offer a sense of shock and pain, but this dissipated in the final act and, unusually for this play, I found my heartstrings unmoved.

Yet, despite my sense that I would have liked stronger direction, more creative use (or none) of the screen, more rigorous attention to diction, the experience was positive: we had the Russian venue of the Kino Teatr offering us the great master of Russian drama to an audience many of whom were unfamiliar with the play, or indeed with Chekhov, and who have expressed an enthusiasm for more.