Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Cherry Orchard at the Theater Royal Windsor is a flat slapstick mess

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Sean Mathias’ staging of the 20th century Russian masterpiece, starring Ian McKellen, is possibly one of the most unimaginable versions of Chekhov

Like all masterpieces by Anton Chekhov The cherry orchard walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, but Sean Mathias’ strange new production at the Theater Royal Windsor almost fails to capture any version of this comedy-meets-tragedy hybrid.

The dry, dark, complex humor is replaced by stunning gags, slapstick pieces and a broad, upside down piece that eliminates almost all potentially serious or meaningful aspects of the plot.

With this, Mathias creates possibly one of the least Chekhov versions of Chekhov imaginable. It’s also one that feels particularly un-Russian and instead has the feel of a very British Edwardian farce in an English country estate.

Fresh from his most recent portrayal of Hamlet – in a production also directed by Mathias and using many of the same cast members – Ian McKellen is expanding his talent for portraying a man at the other end of the age spectrum.

As Firs, the ancient servant of the impoverished family, he wobbles and shakes his way across the stage and steadfastly adores his aristocratic protégés, although he has almost no energy left to move his own limbs.

McKellen’s accomplishment is one of the redeeming features of the piece, as is Kezrena James and Missy Malek as the two sisters Varya and Anya.

James’s Varya, both long-suffering in their own way, exudes despair with every raised, fearful gesture, while Anya von Malek makes no pretenses about the family’s dire situation, but still manages to retain a girlish and joyfully optimistic side of her personality.

Another highlight is the lighting design by Nick Richings, which looks like icy morning light filtered through a dusty lace curtain. And there are some beautiful buttoned and bordered dresses by Loren Elstein that are wonderfully feminine in a fairytale way.

But ramping up the farce like this obscures almost everything else. And that includes the main story. The grief of the matriarch Ranyevskaya over the death of her son loses all emotional depth and – above all – the whole meaning of the actual cherry orchard is at some point completely lost.

In the dying moments, when the hatchets finally start to lie in, you would be forgiven if you thought, “Orchard? Which orchard ?! Oh yes, that Cherry orchard! ”

Until November 13 (01753 853888)

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