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THE CHERRY ORCHARD

Written by Anton Chekov, translation by Mike Alfreds with Lilia Sokolov
Directed by Mike Alfreds
Ian McKellen in the role of Lopakhin
Cottesloe, London; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen
10 December 1985 - 8 March 1986

Words from Ian McKellen

"In the decade since Laurence Olivier retired from the National Theatre at the Old Vic theatre, British theatres have been ruled not by actors but by directors. Coincidentally over the same period, there has been a total decline in the numbers of acting companies working together for long periods. Those regional thatres, where actors of our generation learned our business, cannot nowadays afford to retain such companies. Even in this theatre, there is no pattern of prolonged contracts such as are available to actors working in the national theatres of Europe. British actors are in danger of becoming mere casual employees.

We are delighted to accept Peter Hall's invitation to organise a company of seventeen actors - Eleanor Bron, Selina Cadell, Simon Dutton, Sheila Hancock, Greg Hicks, Jonathan Hyde, Roy Kinnear, Julie Legrand, Hugh Lloyd, Stephen MacDonald, Ian McKellen, Claire Moore, Edward Petherbridge, Laurence Rudic, Dikran Tulaine and Tristram Wymark. Neither of us will direct the plays. Every member of the group will be understudying signed Ian McKellen & Edward Petherbridge."

Comments and Reviews
His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen 4-8 March 1986.

Michael Billington salutes a dazzling production of Chekhov at the Cottesloe

Bumper crop in this Orchard

I have seen The Cherry Orchard in Paris, Moscow, Chicago and at least nine times in Britain over the last two decades; but I have never seen such an emotionally full-blooded or deeply affecting version as Mike Alfreds's new production at the Cottesloe. This is Chekhov with the gloves off; and proof that the McKellen-Petherbridge company has, in only three productions. turned into a true ensemble.

The irony is that Mike Alfreds also brings out the implacable solitude of Chekhov's characters. In this production they laugh, cry, kiss, hug and embrace each other constantly as if to reassure themselves of other people's existence. But they never truly listen and they all seem victims of some private dream: of Paris, marriage, property-development, evolutionary change or, at best, clinging on to the estate. Alfreds presents us with a group of helpless egoists trapped inside their own skins; and what is moving is precisely the contrast with the gaiety of their reunions and the lachrymose nature of their partings.

It is all there in Chekhov: but it is superbly embodied by the actors. After the turbulent, overflowing first-act homecoming with its communal warmth, Selina Cadell's Dunyasha joyfully tells Claire Moore's Anya of her impending marriage; but the latter, already cocooned in selfhood, simply retorts, I've lost all my hairpins." And the knock-on nature of this tribal egoism is underlined when Ms Cadell, after being passionately kissed by Jonathan Hyde's rakish valet, skips and jumps in sheer exultation. Rarely have I seen a British Chekhov production in which each character was so vividly realised: as proof one has only to study the particular reactions to Gayev's apostrophe to the bookcase which range from doe-eyed admiration to downright disgust.

Alfreds brings out the singularity of these people but also the radical shift in social power which is Chekhov's underlying theme; and nowhere is this clearer than in Ian McKellen's magnetically brilliant Lopakhin. He partakes of the family warmth yet remains an inviolate outsider: when Gayev and his sister waltz to distant music, McKellen weighs incongrously in with a bum-jutting little dance.

Even more revealingly, after the purchase of the estate, McKellen whirls the house-keys above his head as if he is going to put someone's eye out yet some impulse makes him rush over to clutch the weeping Ranyevskaya. This Lopakhin is the loneliest character of the lot: brimming with peasant gregariousness yet unable to make any emotional contact with Eleanor Bron's pigtailed, ageing child of a Varya.

Just occasionally in the second act the production sacrifices narrative momentum to Goffmanesque behavioural detail. But it is always pulled back on rails by the contrast between the characters' overspilling warmth and brusque candour. Sheila Hancock's Ranyevskaya is volatile, capricious, flirty and clearly dotes on her brother; the moment I shall remember is when he announces he's going to work in a bank and she snaps back at him, "Stay as you are, you're not up to it." It is ruthlessly honest, very Russian and looks as if it is going to break Edward Pethberbridge's Yellow Book Gayev in two.

Mike Alfreds seems to me to have got the play precisely right: that Chekhov's people are socially exuberant but privately marooned. He has also staged it with lyrical lightness: Paul Dart's set consists of blue cloud-capped flats, gauzy white curtains, minimal furniture. And (vital in Chekhov), sounds are exactly right from the chugging to the ominous breaking string. But what is most rewarding and unEnglish, is the sight of Chekhov being played not by a scratch cast but by a team that bats all the way down (I haven't even mentioned Greg Hicks's hilariously solemn Yepikhodov or Roy Kinnear's Micawberish Pischik). Having generated the best ensemble since Bryden's I only hope the National doesn't let it dissolve. Michael Billington, The Guardian, 12 December 1985