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The company behind The Cherry Orchard at the Bear Pit, Stratford, speak about the complex and compelling Chekhov drama

Funny and profound could both describe Chekhov’s great drama The Cherry Orchard and the Bear Pit company putting it on. Gill Sutherland meets with director Colin Lewis Edwards and cast members Christopher Dobson (Lopakhin) and Penelope Sandle Keynes (Madame Ranyevskya) as they rehearse ahead of opening later this month.

First question to director Colin – how did you get involved in drama?

Colin: I went to Rose Bruford drama school from 1963 to 66, l and did a bit of acting in professional theatre and television. Then I did a lot of teaching and I worked in New York for a while, and also Stratford College. It was a bit of everything really but mainly educational drama because that is what really interests me and it applies a lot to this play.

The Bear Pit. THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Patrick Bladwin
The Bear Pit. THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Patrick Bladwin

We’ve got a fantastic ensemble, and for me the three essentials are: a great play, a terrific space, and a fantastic cast. Really the only things that can go wrong is if the director messes up.

It is an ambitious play. What attracted you to it?

Colin: Well people say it’s a boring old play nothing happens but when you scratch below the surfaces you find that everything is happening. Everybody has a character which is fascinating to explore and if you have a group of actors that are prepared to put in the work to explore it you’ll find that it can become incredibly beneficial to everybody. It’s not what’s on the page but what is beneath the page that really comes through. I don’t believe that every group of actors can do this you have to have a special group. I think we’ve found one.

Penny, you’ve got this huge role in Madame Ranyevskya, what did you think when you first came across The Cherry Orchard?

Penny: I first studied it at A Level years ago and really loved it then. I think Ranyevskya is one of those classic parts like Lady Macbeth or Gertrude that you really want to play, so as soon as Colin mentioned it to me I was like yes! I think it’s really funny and you really find the humour the more you work through it. Ranyevskya goes through every single possible emotion you could think of…

Colin: Sometimes in one speech!

Penny: Exactly. It’s quite a challenge but it’s also really good fun because you can really go for the highs and the lows and everything in between. I’m a big fan of process and working in an ensemble andd discovering characters – obviously it’s great to put on a play at the end of it but the fun bit for me is this bit.

Colin: You learn about yourself in the process and about other people as well. It’s so exciting.

Madame Ranyevskya – Penelope Sandle Keynes
Madame Ranyevskya – Penelope Sandle Keynes

It’s quite an intense play – it’s introspective and analytical about characters – does it feel quite heavy? How does that come out?

Chris: I don’t know about heavy but it’s certainly emotionally quite tiring. After some of the passages I find myself thinking ‘flipping heck I have another act to do’ and I’m absolutely rung out by it. You find yourself getting very involved in it because it is so brilliantly written and relatable.

When it was first put on in Russia by great dramatist Stanislavski in 1904 he did The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy, greatly upsetting Chekhov in the audience who thought of it more as a comedy. How would you describe it?

Colin: I think the comedy is there and if you are responding to the character in the right way I think it emerges. There’s a danger in thinking because Chekhov says it is a comedy we must make it funny – that doesn’t work. It’s laughter through tears. That wonderful ability through the writing to get you feeling all these different things.

Elle Cowan as Anya
Elle Cowan as Anya

It was written 120 years ago – at a time of social and political upheavals in Russia - how relevant is it today?

Colin: Well it is all about transition… A lot of commentators on Chekhov’s work have said that’s what it is about – about pre-empting the revolution. There was that feeling that change was happening. I think one of the main things about the play is that changes are happening to all the individuals and the circumstances of the play – leaving the cherry orchard. I think that’s fundamental to the play.

Chris: And it’s a set of people who are absolutely not interested in reality, and you can see that with the present government. A bunch of very entitled people that have always been in charge and why would that change? And also how everyone is responding or not to the climate crisis. People go on and on about the climate crisis but also say what can we do?

Good stories like The Cherry Orchard endure because they speak to the way people are and how they respond to crisis or love and you can see whatever parallel you like.

Lily Skinner as Varya
Lily Skinner as Varya

Penny: In the play there’s that feeling of inequality and that resentment of inequality. Lopakhin hauls himself up by their bootstraps to take over so actually there’s a message of hope there to those of us who don’t like the Tory government!

Colin: We live in chaotic times where you can’t trust what anybody says and there’s this elitist group of people who are ruling the country. I think in Russia that was exactly what was happening there until they broke through and I think that’s exactly what Chekhov was writing about – breaking free from all those constraints.

Penny: But I think he’s so clever because Madame Ranyevskya represents the old way but I genuinely think despite her being hugely frustrating and irritating you can’t help but kind of love her in a way. We’ve all got aspects of that inside of us which I love.

What does the cherry orchard symbolise?

C: Ranyevskya has the line ‘the cherry orchard is my whole world’. I think the chopping down of the orchard is the end of the previous decade and when they [the Russians] were moving into industrialisation and away from the agrarian movement into something that is very different. The cherry tree is beautiful but ultimately useless.

What’s the look and feel of your production? Is it period costume?

Penny: It is yes. We have strong costume team with many of the costumes made from scratch. They really wanted to covey that opulence because Ranyevskya is meant to be dressed in the latest Paris fashion. They’ve really gone to town with that.

Colin’s got this really interesting juxtaposition of these period costumes and quite modern tech.

Colin: We’re using the screen at the back which is a recent introduction to the Bear Pit and we’re putting pictures in between the acts to set the scene which we’ve never had before. The final sound effect is the trees being chopped down. It starts very quietly in the last act then Anya rushes in and says, “please don’t chop them down not whilst my mother is here”. Then she goes and you can hear the sound of trees. That is the most symbolic moment because everyone disappears to their new homes.

Trofimov – Jake Leon Paul
Trofimov – Jake Leon Paul

Why should people come and see it? What will they get from it?

Chris: I think they will be surprised. If they have any preconceptions about Chekhov I think they will be challenged because it can be seen as a bit dusty. They will laugh and be impressed by it. Also by Colin’s ambition and his passion for it and knowledge. It’s his favourite play and I think that really comes across in the way you are pouring your heart into it.

Colin: I’ve got to say I do feel very privileged to work on a play which is a masterpiece with some really good actors and start to explore it. You’ll get to see a group of people doing something very difficult and making sense of it but also it will leave you asking questions about the current state of affairs. I like the idea of an amateur drama company tackling a classic play. I don’t think we’ve done a classic play in the same league of Chekhov. We’re proving that anyone can do that.

Penny: I think that what people will get from it is that it is a bloody good story. There’s everything you want from a really good story and catharsis at the end which you get from every good play really. There’s something to be said for these classic plays. They’re classics for a reason.

C: I was in the Cherry Orchard in 1969 when I left drama school. David Mears {Bear Pit artistic director] knows it is my favourite play and we had some conversations about it and he said why don’t you do it – I admit I fell over, stunned. I rushed back and said to my wife Wendy “I don’t know what to say really!”. And she said, “You’ve been on about this play ever since I’ve known you! Have a go!”

The Cherry Orchard is on at the Bear Pit Theatre from 24th to 28th October. Tickets available from www.thebearpit.org.uk or call 0333 666 3366

About The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard was Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov’s last play, produced by the famous Moscow Art Theatre shortly before his death in 1904.

Set in Russia at the start of the 20th century, aristocrat Madame Ranyevskya returns to her estate following a five-year absence to discover her property and beloved cherry orchard, a nostalgic childhood sanctuary, is to be auctioned off to pay the family debts.

Lopakhin, the son of peasants now a successful businessman, offers to help the woman he has loved since boyhood. In denial she continues living in the past with ruinous consequences.

Chekhov’s masterpiece is an exploration of loss, love, a disparity of class and a fascinating insight to a changing society.

Many consider The Cherry Orchard to be his greatest play. It is a beautiful example of Chekhovian style: the mixture of comedy and tragedy, a form that avoids melodrama by setting the most exciting events offstage, and the detailed characterisation that makes Chekhov an actor's dream.

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