As part of a joint Anglo-American project with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic is currently running two plays in parallel with the same cast in both: The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard. It’s a fairly starry enterprise, directed by Sam Mendes, with acting from Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke and so on; even the text of the Cherry Orchard is a new translation by Tom Stoppard.
I’d never actually seen or read The Cherry Orchard — or indeed any other Chekhov; quite a few of my most embarrassing cultural ignorances are related to drama — so it was interesting to go to it without any very specific preconceptions. Would I have guessed from watching it that it was one of the most-performed classics by one of the great dramatists? Short answer: um, no, but I don’t necessarily blame that on the play.
I do think the play feels quite dated. In one sense, of course, as a Russian play from 1904, it was dated pretty rapidly by events. The central social dynamic of the play, of a declining aristocracy and a rising merchant class, seems trivial compared to the changes brought by the Revolution. But more generally — stylistically, I guess — it feels like a bit of a period piece. It should not, I suppose, come as a surprise that a play which is over a hundred years old feels, um, old, and I’m quite certain that it will have aged better than most of its contemporaries, but there you go.
But I don’t think it was helped by the production, which also felt a bit old-fashioned but has less excuse for it. There were a few too many pregnant pauses, some slightly manipulative atmospheric musical effects, and a general sense of actors struggling to bring the material to life. I’m sure they’re all talented actors — my sister saw the other production, The Winter’s Tale, and said it was brilliant — but it all felt a bit self-conscious. Maybe they were just having a bad day.