The Cherry Orchard
It’s commonplace to see productions of Chekhov concentrate on the business of love and loss that so underpins his great dramas. Yet what is neglected, particularly in British productions, is the urgent sense of social change and economic disaster that feeds into these relationships. So often in this country the real drama of Chekhov is resolutely ignored by directors keen to emphasise a love story devoid of the political content that’s actually key to the emotions depicted.
Not so John Byrne, adapting The Cherry Orchard for the Lyceum. Byrne, along with director Tony Cownie, is keen to see some social truth restored to Chekhov’s lovelorn characters. By setting this new version in May 1979 (for those of you unfamiliar with the history of catastrophe, the time of Mrs Thatcher’s election victory) Byrne has made Chekhov’s social metaphor crystal clear. ‘It’s very germane to the whole thing, setting it in 1979,’ Byrne says. ‘It points it to the deeper significance. It really was a sea change, parallel to that coming revolution Chekhov was talking about.’
The purchase of the titular farm, belonging to a formerly well-off family, is given new relevance with Byrne’s relocation of the piece to rural Scotland. The zealous revolutionaries of this version, though, are of the right, not the left, and, as if to emphasise the fanaticism of these early Thatcherites, one is nicknamed ‘Trotsky’ by the locals.
‘McCracken [Trofimov in Chekhov’s version] is a Thatcher man; he talks about free enterprise and how, if it wasn’t for him, people wouldn’t have jobs,’ says Byrne. ‘So 1979 was a real godsend, with that change in society about to happen. The Northeast of Scotland is a good place to set it, because it’s full of landed gentry and toffs, who were altered by that change too. We couldn’t have been luckier, with this show running through a general election.’
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 16 Apr–Sat 8 May