Last year's Olivier-winning White Guard director/designer team of Howard Davies and Bunny Christie reunite at the National, at the Olivier this time to launch this year's Travelex season with Chekhov's last, most overtly political play. Zoë Wanamaker is the big name and doesn't disappoint, although as star vehicles go Ranyevskaya is a relatively low-key role. This is in fact a very strong ensemble production, and the National's loyalty towards actors who've appeared there frequently sees Conleth Hill given the closest thing to a lead role, making a rather gentle Lopakhin. His likeability as he's belittled in Act I makes for a particularly interesting experience if you know how things are going to pan out. His and Varya's (Claudie Blakley) doomed, unspoken love is rather too underplayed though, lacking the pathos of Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall's portrayals in the Bridge Project two years ago. There's some successful high-profile casting elsewhere as Kenneth Cranham makes Firs truly memorable and eccentric. Although I can accept I'll never really love Chekhov's work, for the most part it's the politics of The Cherry Orchard that I enjoy, the way the estate is a microcosm of the social upheaval Russia was going through at the time. (Of course, had Chekhov not died in 1904 he'd have seen a much bigger upheaval, and had he been real the capitalist Lopakhin's eventual victory would have been short-lived.) The exception is the rather heavy-handed way eternal student Trofimov's (Mark Bonnar) radical opinions are expressed, in endless diatribes that make Act II in particular pretty hard going.
What I particularly liked about Christie's set was the weathered look of the wooden structure; the place may be grand but it's visibly in bad shape, a reflection of Ranyevskaya and her family's denial of their financial straits. The big set changes are smoothly and impressively done, if not providing quite the coup of last year's award-winner. Neil Austin's lighting also stands out, its constant movement from day to night and back relentlessly reminding us of time passing, and in the family's case running out. Andrew Upton's version of the text is occasionally witty although some of the more modern touches are sometimes jarring - "bozo," really? And a special mention to magic consultant Simon Evans and Sarah Woodward who, as Charlotta, actually performs the tricks, a couple of which are really very good (the National perhaps hedging their bets in case this turned out to be a dud, and remembering how some clever decapitations were the one good thing about Danton's Death.) Fortunately they don't need this as the show's a success, and though I may be suffering from a touch of Chekhov fatigue I found it one of the better productions of this play I've seen.
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in a version by Andrew Upton is booking until the 28th of July at the National Theatre's Olivier, and screening live to cinemas worldwide on the 30th of June.