Is there an actor currently appearing on our stages today who is, second by second, as fascinating as Pamela Rabe? Her Ranevskaya for Belvoir would seem to brook no argument. In Rabe’s hands this impulsive, warm, generous, indecisive and thoroughly impractical woman is utterly bewitching. It’s an unforgettable performance of one of the great roles in 20th-century drama.

Pamela Rabe, Mandela Mathia, Charles Wu and Josh Price in The Cherry Orchard. Photograph © Brett Boardman

The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s final play, begins with Lubov Ranevskaya’s return to her estate in Russia after five years in Paris. It’s very early in the morning but there are plenty of people up to greet her, among them the rising property developer Lopahkin (Mandela Mathia), Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya (Nadie Kammallaweera), the maid Dunyasha (Sarah Meacham), Dunyasha’s hapless suitor Yepikhodov (Jack Scott) and even ancient Firs (Peter Carroll), who has been with the household forever.

Ranevskaya sweeps in wearing a capacious cape and, despite the early hour, sunglasses. She’s not glamorous exactly, being a little too ungainly and, due to her circumstances, not quite well-dressed enough. She has substantial presence though, which you would expect from someone in Ranevskaya’s position. She’s also engagingly odd and slightly nervy. When Dunyasha races forward to embrace Ranevskaya, Rabe recoils for just an instant, a moment that is both extremely funny and a bit sad. Just the thing for Chekhov.

Chekhov famously hated the first production of The Cherry Orchard (staged in 1904), which was directed by Konstantin Stanislavski as tragedy. Chekhov saw it as a comedy, which is the line Eamon Flack takes for his new contemporary adaptation.

While the translation is quite free, Chekhov’s story is unchanged. Indeed, it makes an effortless transition to the 21st century.

Things are not going well at Ranevskaya’s ancestral estate. Famed for its glorious cherry orchard, the place is heavily mortgaged and an auction looms. Not only is paying off the loan impossible, Ranevskaya and her brother, Gaev (Keith Robinson), can’t even find enough to cover the interest on the loan. Lopahkin suggests they rip out the orchard, subdivide the land and sell plots for holiday homes, a pragmatic approach to the problem. Otherwise the place will be sold under them. Ranevskaya can’t bear to contemplate the destruction of the orchard and procrastinates; Gaev bumbles about and comes up with an unworkable solution. The estate is sold. The old entitled class makes way for a new order, embodied in the likes of Ranevskaya’s hyper-confident manservant Yasha (Charles Wu). Some ideas for the future are better than others. Life marches on.

Nothing illustrates Chekhov’s theme of inevitable change better than Flack’s cast, all of them wonderful. Flack cannily recasts the eternal student Trofimov as a woman, Petya (Priscilla Doueihy), with no alteration to her relationship with Ranevskaya’s young daughter Anya (Kirsty Marillier). Call it woke casting if you are feeling sour but in performance it is fresh and charming. And not so very long ago every face in a production of The Cherry Orchard would have been white. No longer, and we are the richer for it. Mandela Mathia is a particularly potent Lopahkin. Flack isn’t the first director to cast a Black man as Lopahkin and in his final, great speech to equate being the son of serfs to being the son of slaves, but it’s a choice that has profound relevance today. Mathia is wonderful, too, at conveying Lopakhin’s deep frustration at Ranevskaya’s failure to act as he thinks she should while still holding her in much affection. It’s a performance of formidable focus.

Flack’s production is very good at creating vivid characters (Lucia Mastrantone’s ferociously eccentric Charlotta is a case in point) and choreographer Elle Evangelista’s interpretation of the dance with which Chekhov opens Act III is a riot. With such a strong emphasis on comedy, though, something is lost. We absolutely see the messiness and absurdity of life but the undertow of melancholy represented by Chekhov’s mysterious sound of a string breaking – so important he put it in twice – is largely missing, other than in Rabe’s performance and in Kammallaweera’s touching Varya.

The play ends with everyone gone and Firs having been forgotten. His last words are about the evanescence of life, a summation of the piece, if you will. They didn’t seem to quite fit.

The Cherry Orchard plays Upstairs at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until June 27


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