*. The Cherry Orchard has been a popular play both in its own day and our own (I think I saw two student productions when I was at university) but it’s always been dogged by a question of the proper tone to take with it. And when I say “always” I mean right from the start. Its first production, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski (he of the Method), was presented as a tragedy, which upset Chekhov who insisted on subtitling it a comedy.
*. People have been arguing ever since about whether it is tragedy, comedy, tragi-comedy, or just some different kind of tragedy or comedy than what we’re used to. A lot depends on (1) how sympathetically you view the old landed gentry falling into a state of shabby gentility, and (2) what you think of the rising man Lopakhin. Is he a realist climbing the ranks through intelligence and hard work, or a cruel opportunist who only cares about the bottom line?
*. I think this BBC television production directed by Richard Eyre doesn’t come down firmly on either side. We feel for Judi Dench as Lyuba, who while misty-eyed is no idiot. And Bill Paterson’s Lopakhin (set apart from the others by his broad Scottish accent, climaxing in his big “Loook at me nooo!” speech) isn’t mean-spirited so much as exasperated at the idiots he’s trying to help.
*. For what it’s worth, Chekhov seems to have thought of Lopakhin as the hero of the piece, while the gentry are a collection of freaks and mental cripples. They are, in fact, clowns. Gayev plays air billiards. Trofimov is the eternal servant who even takes a pratfall after his big renunciation of Lyuba. Yepikhodov (a young Timothy Spall) is the walking accident. And the servants aren’t much better. Firs has one-and-a-half feet in the grave, and Yasha is a cartoon bounder who even gets a blowjob from Dunyasha in Act Two, a bawdy bit of interpretation from Eyre that makes a lot out of how nice it is to smoke a cigar . . . with a pretty girl’s head in your lap.
*. You have to laugh at all these people. And feel a little sorry for some of them. But you don’t laugh at Lopakhin or Varya (Harriet Walter). And I think the best part of the play is the final scene between these two, which leaves everything unsaid in addressing the question of why Lopakhin doesn’t propose to Varya.
*. Leading up to this it seems as though Lopakhin is actually more attracted, and I mean that in a sexual sense, to Lyuba. Judi Dench has such a reputation as a sort of Angela Lansbury figure who has always been everyone’s mom or grandmother that it’s nice to see her here in a role where you can see her running off to Paris with her lover. She’s a cougar with some teeth yet (she played Anya, Lyuba’s daughter, in a 1962 BBC production. if you can track it down). But Lyuba is obviously angling for Lopakhin to marry Varya and everybody seems on board . . . until they aren’t. What happens? Well, nothing happens. And it’s such a great scene watching the two of them give up on the idea of marriage without ever addressing it directly. It was all just talk between them, and now they’ve talked enough.
*. As you’d expect for a television film from this period it looks muddy as hell, but I actually thought that went with the sepia-toned feel of the piece. Which is good, because I doubt it’s possible to clean it up to make it look any better. Shot on video. there’s nothing to be restored. So what you’re getting here is a studio-bound filmed play. There aren’t even any location establishing shots. But everybody does their job and I came away from it at least thinking that I’d seen a good . . . play.