Book Review:  The Cherry Orchard  by Anton Chekhov

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This month WEN reading group read the same book, a play, as a local Ealing book club and we both went to see the play at the National Theatre this week.  So what did we think?

Reading the play as you might expect was a different experience to seeing it on stage.  Directing the action in our own heads proved a challenge for most of us; mostly because the characters had so many Russian names it became difficult to follow the individual characters and then to build up any real sympathy with them. 

Chekhov is known as a man who appreciated humour and considered that for all the sadness of his characters' situation there was humour in his play.  Reading this more than a century on the humour was outweighed by the tragic circumstances of his characters and we talked at length about how humour can be appreciated in this way. 

Set at an old country estate with a cherry orchard, Landowner Madame Ranevsky, or Ranyevskaya as played by Zoe Wanamaker is in debt and in the changing circumstances of Russia must face changes.  Her choice is to develop her land, demoloshing her beloved cherry orchard to build dachas for holidays for the burgeoning middle class or lose the estate. 

Unable to accept the changes in society, she and many of the characters look back to the past and do nothing.  The cherry orchard is sold and cutting it down begins before the play ends symbolising the end of a way of life that can not be returned to. 

Who bought the cherry orchard?  Lopakhin, a merchant, a self made man whose family had been serfs not even allowed into the kitchen of the estate he comes to own.  To complete the symbolic change in society the old and faithful butler, Firs ends the play locked in the house with the cherry orchard being brought down around him, a truly sad and tragic ending for the character but reinforcing Chekhovs message that he has no place in the changing society, he belongs to a world that has ceased to exist and is locked in it.

Whatever our views having read the play, we all enjoyed seeing it at the National Theatre.  As a venue it is great, easy to get to, the theatre space itself works well, no matter how cheap your tickets you get a good view of the stage!  With bars and cafes around there's a great atmosphere enjoyed by ourselves and the odd director and actor we star spotted.  The cast we all agreed were very strong and with the sort of staging you could expect from the National it's a good production to go to. 

Presented as a version by Andrew Upton the characters and action really came to life and where we'd struggled with the humour on first reading the play there were many laugh out loud moments in the theatre. 

In both text and on stage the portrayal of family life really works;  with individuals facing their own personal concerns and the issue of the cherry orchard taking place many of the characters were at pains to express themselves, but in the way we can relate to, in family life people are preoccupied and often don't respond to what's presented to them but carry on with their own issues.  This and the way of living and socialising was brought beautifully to life on stage. 

The only thing we weren't entirely happy with was in the updated version Andrew Upton who has done a brilliant job of relating to the modern audience has added language, such as 'garbage' that some in the group didn't feel quite fitted. 

You're not too late to see this production, it's on until 13th August and if you wanted to read it before you go West Ealing Library have copies of the play if you ask at the desk.  Don't fancy Chekhov but would like to try out a reading group?  You're welcome to join us, our next meeting is at 7.30pm at the Drayton Court on 26th July and the book Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

Sara Judic


6 July 2011





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