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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Cherry Orchard
BBC and YouTube   February 2022

The major draw in this 1982 BBC broadcast of Chekhov, now in YouTube's vaults, is Judi Dench in the central role of the aristocrat who can't or won't face the fact that she's deep in debt and the family estate is about to be lost.

Dench does indeed give the character some original colours, and there is an excellent performance elsewhere in a relatively minor role. But that's about it, and your strongest response to this production is likely to be disappointment.

Though Dench's character constantly describes her life as driven by whims and passions, the actress makes it clear that there were conscious decisions at every point.

In the early scenes, when the peasant-turned-businessman Lopakhin (Bill Paterson) suggests a way that the estate can be saved, we watch Dench in close-ups as she considers and then rejects the idea so thoroughly rejects it that she can make herself forget it was ever raised.

Elsewhere we spot something in the character that few other actresses have found an awareness of her effect on others. When she despairs or cheers up or flirts or attacks, she is at least partly playing a role, manipulating others to win their sympathy or admiration.

Five years after this broadcast Dench played Shakespeare's Cleopatra as a woman-who-had-been-beautiful and you can sense a kind of preliminary sketch here, as Mme Ranevsky uses tools from her youth, though with greater strain and effort.

The other really impressive performance here is by Anton Lesser as the one-in-every-Chekhov-play idealist imagining a paradise in the distant future and dedicating himself to working toward it.

As in the other plays, the character is written with a mix of admiration and patronisation, other characters chuckling a bit at his naivete.

But Lesser (most recently seen as the senior cop in the TV series Endeavour) invests him with such energy and moral force that he trumps any ridicule and wins every debate. The play comes alive when he's around, in ways that not even Dench can generate.

Elsewhere, very little. The usually-reliable Bill Paterson can hardly register in what should be the second lead, and everyone else is essentially invisible.

Director Richard Eyre does nicely capture the recurring Chekhovian trope in which one character pours out his or her soul to another, who hardly hears it because of being wrapped up in their own concerns.

And there are some effective bits of staging or camera placement that remind us of another Chekhov insight that minor characters are living at the centre of their own dramas even as our attention is elsewhere.

I'm tempted to suggest that you fast-forward through the recording, pausing every time Anton Lesser comes onscreen. That's where most of what's new and special about this Cherry Orchard lies.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Cherry Orchard (BBC 1982) - 2022