“You become so much more aware of the need to express to both sides of the audience. It’s also it’s quite nice knowing that different parts of the audience will see something slightly different, get a different perspective on what’s going on.”
This is actor Jude Owusu, who plays Lopakhin, the peasant farmer on the rise, in Bristol Old Vic’s forthcoming production of Anton Chekhov’s great final masterpiece The Cherry Orchard (March 1-April 17).
Directed by Michael Boyd, it’s the major production for the start of Bristol Old Vic’s Year of Change, and the theatre is taking the ‘change’ theme literally, turning the 252-year-old, U-shaped auditorium into a full circle of seating similar to a circus ring, complete with seven-foot revolve. It’s the first time the theatre has taken on such a major reconstruction.
The Cherry Orchard is, for many, a great playwright’s greatest work. It’s also, often, misunderstood. Chekhov considered his last play – about the declining fortunes of a Russian aristocratic family and the varying degrees of sympathy and selfishness of their employees and hangers-on – as a comedy, and was intensely displeased at its first outing, directed by the great Constantin Stanislavski as a tragedy.
Tragedy, comedy or both, the play draws deeply on changes occurring in Russia at the time of its creation –including the rise of the middle class after the abolition of serfdom in the mid-19th century and the decline of the power of the aristocracy. The aristocratic Madame Ranyevskaya is horrified at the impending destruction of the family’s long-held, famous and beloved cherry orchard as they lose their lands to the flourishing former serf Lopakhin (who is the play’s wealthiest character, though he’s also of the lowest social standing – a paradox of this rapidly changing world). The Russian Revolution is just 14 years away. The old order is making way for the new.
Kirsty Bushell (likely most familiar from TV’s Motherland, but also a theatre actress of distinction) plays Ranyevskaya. “Before the abolition of serfdom in 1861, a vast proportion of the Russian population was kept in slavery,” Kirsty elaborates. “Often we romanticise certain elements and characters of this story, without fully taking in the truth about what life would have been like – the hardship, the violence inflicted on a huge proportion of the population.
“As paradigms are shifting in the modern world – as we’re waking up to the reality of white privilege, for example – the play feels incredibly relevant. And society is just changing too fast for some. Ranyevskaya’s world is falling apart, which must be how some folk in America are feeling now: ‘what the hell is going on?’”
Kirsty and Jude are both in awe at the levels of subtlety, emotional verisimilitude and, yes, humour that they are finding in the work. “You spend the first couple of weeks feeling dumbstruck at how accurate he is about life and relationships,” Kirsty reveals, to which Jude adds: “The play’s themes of love, despair, revenge are totally relevant and current today.”
“Take Ranyevskaya,” Kirsty continues. “She’s psychologically wrecked. Her external world – the loss of her beloved orchard and her family home – is like an outer manifestation of what’s happening to her on the inside. She’s not wilfully rejecting a new order, she is simply broken. And I think many people experience similar feelings at certain times in their life.
And how are they managing the play’s (Chekhov’s) famous tightrope balance between tragedy and comedy? “It all feels very seamless,” says Jude. “The tragedy comes out of the comedy and vice versa. When I first read the play ten years or so I was like, ‘What the hell, nothing’s happening!’, but in rehearsals I have been howling at some of the characters, the things they say and do, and the similarities with people I know.”
Kirsty agrees: “These characters are so vivid, and so changeable and lifelike. I hope audiences will feel that constant switching: ‘oh, he’s a monster… no, oh my God, poor thing…!’, laughing, crying, ‘that’s just like my mum… my God, that’s me!’. You’ve got flawed, brilliant, robust, multi-dimensional people, getting it wrong, working their way through a time of crisis and great change.”
The Cherry Orchard March 1-April 7, Bristol Old Vic. For more info, visit bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/the-cherry-orchard