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By 11th February 2017 0 Comments Read More →

CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE FEATURE: As the Arcola Theatre Stages Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, what can children learn from the drama about a hard-up Russian land owner over a century ago?

1900 01 The Cherry Orchard

The Arcola Theatre in London is staging one of the classics of literature.  What can senior school children learn from a play about a hard-up Russian landowner more than a century ago? Harry Mottram asked the artistic director Mehmet Ergen the questions

The director of the Cherry Orchard - Mehmet Ergen Pic: BBC

The director of the Cherry Orchard – Mehmet Ergen Pic: BBC

As her creditors close in Madame Ranevshy is unable and unwilling to reform her estate and sell her vast cherry orchard for development into holiday homes.
She lives in the past, clings to disappearing social norms and insists she will not yield to the modern world. A-level students have for years been presented with the text and play as a an example of a well constructed play, strongly drawn characters, how society changes and a wwindow on pre-revolutionary Russia.
This spring Anton Chekhov’s 1904 drama The Cherry Orchard is being staged at London’s Arcola Theatre as part of its Revolution season. Chekhov described the play as a comedy, although Stanislavski saw it as a tragedy while it is generally produced as a bitter sweet drama casting a light on the frailties of human nature. One thing is certain and that is children studying literature and drama should make an effort to see the play as part of their wider reading while those studying history will gain an angle on pre-World War 1 Russian society.

Children's Theatre Magazine February 2017
With that in mind we posed some questions to the director of the Arcola production Mehmet Ergen about the drama.
What are the main themes you are seeking to bring out in The Cherry Orchard?
Change; change in society. What’s fascinating about Chekhov is that he’s writing about major change in his own time, but in the subtlest of ways. The Russian Revolution is some way off, and the biggest changes are yet to be fully realised or defined, but you can feel change in the air. I think that chimes with the mood now. With the Austrian elections, Turkish elections, Brexit, Trump – we can sense something enormous is going to happen, but we don’t yet know what it is. It’s something elusive, but very powerful. Chekhov puts his finger on that.

2017 02 The Cherry Orchard Arcola
How are women portrayed in the play and in this production?
Working women are very strong. It’s a common theme in Chekhov’s plays, that people survive by busying themselves with work that is worthy. That provides a constancy and stability. The men change more, but they’re shown up as quite weak. Like Lopakhin – after becoming the owner of the estate, after coming into money, he just cannot bring himself to propose to Varya. I think Chekhov writes fantastic parts for women, and we’re very fortunate to have Sian Thomas, Jade Williams, Pernille Broch and several other fantastic actors in our Revolution Ensemble to play those parts.

Sian Thomas plays  Mme Ranevsky

Sian Thomas plays
Mme Ranevsky

Is the play relevant to today’s Russia?
Russia today is a very different society, but the power struggles remain. On a simple level, having property, desiring property, and then losing it – that’s always relevant. And it’s the massive contradiction in revolution: we want an equal society and for everyone to have everything, but we also want things just for ourselves, and we want things that are better than what everyone else has. There’s also the added burden of acquiring things from your past. ‘I don’t want to leave this house because it was my grandfather’s.’ People imbue things with their own histories and their own heritage, and they attach a kind of nostalgic longing. I think it’s always there, and always relevant.

 Jude Akuwudike plays Lophakin

Jude Akuwudike plays

What style are you bringing to the play?
There’s often a very stifling atmosphere in Chekhov productions: a lot of wood and laces and samovars and supposedly ‘authentic’ things. We will try to get away from all that. This production will be starker and more minimal in style, because I think that will help reveal the play for what it is, and put focus on the characters and relationships and the drama.

Anton Chekhov
What should A level students take from the drama?
Inevitably they will see one of the best plays ever written. It’s on everyone’s top ten list of the past thousand years of playwriting. It’s so subtle and clever, and yet it works everywhere – every nation, every culture, every religion. The scene where Varya knows Lopakhin is supposed to propose to her: she comes in, pretends she’s looking for something, and they talk about the barometer being broken and the distances between villages. They talk about everything except their relationship, and yet everyone in the audience knows that it’s a scene about their relationship. That is just masterful writing. So for one thing, students can take away the idea that a scene might not be about the things people are saying – but the things they’re not saying, or something else entirely. In The Cherry Orchard, the repercussions of that are wide-reaching and incredible.

The Arcola Theatre

The Arcola Theatre

Can the play teach us anything about today?
I think both The Cherry Orchard and Gorky’s The Lower Depths, the other Russian play in our Revolution season, have a real salience today. They show the pressures placed on people by the direction of their society, and the risks of people being left behind. The characters in The Lower Depths are impoverished in a shelter in Nizhny, but it could just as easily be a homeless shelter in London, or the Calais Jungle. Today we’re paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in wages to CEOs while there are more and more people in homeless shelters, begging on the street, displaced in refugee camps, in the most desperate situation. For how much longer can that be sustained? Revolutions take a huge toll, but every so often, people seem to conclude that the toll of the status quo is greater. Perhaps that explains Brexit. It’s what comes next that’s vital, however – and Chekhov and Gorky knew that. Their plays herald the last straws, and the new beginnings. Be it hopeful or dreadful, change is in the air.

Pernille Broch plays Anya

Pernille Broch plays

Listing details
LONDON Arcola Theatre 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL. Box Office: +44 (0)20 7503 1646. THE CHERRY ORCHARD 15 Feb-25 Mar 2017. Age: 11+ • VARIOUS PERFORMANCE TIMES. £10/£19 • Madame Ranevsky has come home to her family estate, and the cherry orchard is just as glorious as ever. But debts are beginning to pile up, and a momentous change is brewing…  Anton Chekhov’s final masterpiece is a gleaming and shattering drama about a family on the edge of ruin, and a nation on the brink of revolution. The acclaimed English version by Trevor Griffiths, author of Comedians and Party, comes to London for the very first time in a major new production from Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen. Arcola’s Revolution Ensemble perform the play, following Gorky’s The Lower Depths, on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. A must see show for A level English literature and drama students.

The latest issue of Children’s Theatre Magazine is out. In February’s issue there’s features on the Half Moon Theatre, pirates, Othello, Imaginate, The Cherry Orchard, plus news, reviews and what’s on.

You can read it below or here

There’s lots more at and you can follow Harry Mottram on Twitter and Facebook.

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