Gary Owen’s strong adaptation of this Chekhov classic, combined with a superb cast contribute to a powerful and relevant production.
Transposing the action from turn of the century Russia to Pembrokeshire in the 1982, the Sherman Theatre continues its successful partnership between writer Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan, which has already created the award winning Iphigenia in Splott and this years Killology. Chekhov’s original was set at a time of huge social upheaval among the rumblings of the Russian Revolution, and Owen has cleverly updated this to the United Kingdom in the 1980’s under Thatcher – another time of huge social change. Rather than portraying the social upheaval between the emancipated peasants and the aristocracy, this adaptation shows the conflict between the old upper class, and the Thatcherite aspiring working class – the conflict between new and old money, and the power struggles between them.
This is most clearly demonstrated in this bold adaptation by the tension between aging matriarch Rainey (Denise Black) and working class Lewis (Matthew Bulgo). As the owner of a country estate which is in a dire financial situation, Rainey is reluctant to part with her property and its orchards (in this play changed to apple orchards) despite the fact it would save their family’s fortunes. This is partly down to an ingrained snobbery; the family have a servant (the hilarious Dotty – Alexandria Riley) and seem incapable of doing anything for themselves, and partly down to Rainey’s belief that Lewis only wants to help for his own nefarious reasons. This conflict is explored superbly, and the tension between the scene stealing Black and the excellent Bulgo is fantastic. Indeed, the cast as a whole is superb, from the bumbling but affectionate Uncle Gabriel (Simon Armstrong) who is convinced that “something will come up” to the rebellious Anya (Morfydd Clark), this strong ensemble cast really makes Owen’s script sparkle.
In transposing the action to the 80’s, Owen manages to update the social dynamics and include themes that are still relevant today. Lewis’ belief that Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme would actually cause house prices to fall as demand drove supply is painfully ironic in 2017, as we see the effects of chronic under-investment in housing stock reflected in their ever inflating price tags. However not all changes are quite as successful as this. The inclusion of the beginning of the Falklands conflict feels shoehorned in to the piece, and doesn’t contribute to the overall narrative. This is a problem which the production suffers from throughout. While Owen’s script is funny, moving and full of his unique style of imagery, it is also bloated and overly long. The second half in particular suffers from an excess of backstory for some characters, which does little to advance the story line in any meaningful way.
The play also explores in depth the conflict between individualism and socialism – between the free market and the welfare state. While both from working class stock, Lewis and Ceri (Richard Mylan) have two very different approaches to this, and this is an excellent representation of the polarizing effect of Thatcherite policies. As a self described revolutionary-socialist Ceri believes that capitalism is heading towards inevitable collapse and that after the revolution things should be redistributed according to need not wealth. Lewis on the other hand is a self made man, pulling himself up from nothing to be the owner of a construction company. There is a painful irony in seeing the hope and passion in Ceri’s belief that capitalism will give way to a fairer system, when the reality is that the 30 years since have seen a doubling down of free market economics first made mainstream in the UK by the Iron Lady herself.
The staging of the piece is simple but effective; a simple square set with basic furniture to represent the manor house, and the lighting and sound design compliments this well. Bright blues and yellows evoke seasons and times of day, while sound is used to create a sense of place – waves crashing, or birds singing. Overall the directorial decisions are sound, however the inclusion of the ghost of Rainey’s dead son at the end seems unnecessary. It has been made clear throughout the production that the family, and Rainey in particular, are still haunted by their loss both through a superbly acted monologue and through the clever use of a toy train. These minor gripes aside, this is a production which uses Chekhhov’s seminal play as a basis for a funny, poignant and relevant re-imagining with a superb cast and witty script.
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