Revolution is as much in the mind as it is on the streets. That was the great (albeit unconscious) insight of Anton Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, about a family of Russian aristocrats displaced from their beloved country home. It’s also why the play makes a fine centrepiece in the season of plays at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre commemorating the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
Although the play was first performed in 1904, social and political pressure had been building long before the big revolution of 1917. The failed revolution of 1905, a year after the play premiered, was a bloody and pyrrhic victory for the tsar. The writing was on the wall and left most Russians in a chronic state of insecurity.
The orchard in Chekhov’s play represented Russia in its idealised form. Its fate was for it to be hacked down and leased out. The spendthrift owners of the orchard have been resident in Paris and are bought out by one of their freed serfs who has gone on to become a businessman. The substance of the play is therefore changing social mores, class struggle and intergenerational conflict. But at the very centre of the play Chekhov identifies the pain of all the characters’ attachment to their old way of being.
The beauty of Mehmet Ergen’s bold and direct new production, using playwright Trevor Griffith’s lean, idiomatic version from 1978, is that it captures the comedy and tragedy of the characters and their acute sense of dislocation. Performed with pace and pathos, it offers a portrait of a society united by the self-estrangement of its people, chiming subtly with today’s changing world.
Often presented as a deeply nostalgic drama yearning to recover how things once were, it is clear from Iona McLeish’s Spartan design that this is not an option. With a metal floor and sparse ghostly white furniture under a leafless white tree, the house is already a lost memory. This is not a place where it’s possible to remain.