The masters sneer at the servants, the servants scold one other and anger dominates the dying household. What is this, a Soviet corrective to “Downton Abbey”? Class lines are almost visibly drawn up in the new National Theater production of “The Cherry Orchard.” Fuelled by a strident new translation by Andrew Upton (“Oh bollocks!”), the cast present their positions with as much detailed zest as you’d expect from director Howard Davies. What only rarely emerges, however, is drama.
Chekhov’s hallmark is his refusal to judge his characters. Presenting portraits of people from every angle riddled with dashed hopes and good intentions, he creates affecting, three-dimensional lives. Although his situations are seemingly static, tension is rife as audiences are led into burrowing between surface manners and hidden motives.
Peculiarly, Davies’s production abandons most of that. Characters here are starkly and singly defined. Like an overgrown Arkadina escaped from “The Seagull,” Zoe Wanamaker’s Ranevskaya takes the character’s selfishness and runs away with it. She’s girlish and comically infuriating but since she’s almost never given leave to earn audience sympathy, it’s almost impossible to care for someone so foolishly self-absorbed.
Similarly, Gerald Kyd is suitably attractive as Yasha, thereby making his appeal to Dunyasha (Emily Taafe) very clear. But when he’s so openly insincere and on-the-make, not only is her infatuation so obviously doomed as to make tension evaporate, it also makes her look stupid.
Even Claudie Blakeley, mistress of disguised pain, cannot make much headway with the overstated presentation of downtrodden, taken-for-granted Varya whose dilemma should one of the play’s emotional touchstones. Yes, she’s unhappy, but having her yell “If I catch you within an inch of this house I will flog you within an inch of your pathetic life” pretty much quells any nascent sympathy.
Hints of more traditional productions are there in the opening ruminative clarinet, a baleful cello and the expressive texture of Neil Austin’s ravishing lighting. But nostalgia — an idea made flesh in a very high percentage of the characters — has clearly been banned.
It is a relief to see Chekhov cliches being expunged — there are no birch, much less cherry, trees — and Bunny Christie’s all-wood set presents an barn-like house in a state of serious neglect rather than a dream home. But the supposed authenticity of the production is at odds with its time-shift, the (in)action updated from 1903, when the play was written, to 1905. Yet the shift is crucial since by 1905 the Russian Revolution had begun.
Davies and Upton are, therefore, consciously presenting Chekhov as having an axe to grind in his depiction of a dying class. But this flattens the characters into a succession of foregone conclusions — a position that robs them of development or surprise. The result is that the play feels considerably less rich. Instead of being multi-layered, engrossingly contradictory, politically prescient and tragic, it feels predictable and long.