It’s a very big year for Bristol Old Vic. After a project costing almost £20m the original facade of the 251 year old theatre will re-appear with a much refurbished space behind it.
And it’s not just the appearance of the theatre that will be different. The Bristol Old Vic has dedicated 2018 as the Year of Change in an effort to “renew its own relationship with the city”.
It will connect with communities that rarely visit the theatre and while it will continue to entertain, the theatre will also debate difficult and controversial subjects such as race and diversity.
With that in mind, The Cherry Orchard is the perfect choice for the first big show of the year.
Chekhov’s final masterpiece has been updated for the 21st century in a translation by playwright Rory Mullarkey and directed by Michael Boyd, celebrated former artistic director of the RSC in collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
As the curtain fell, that ‘change’ word was immediately the theme.
The play is staged in the round and to make that happen a whole new section of seating has been constructed at the back of the stage that faithfully echos the theatre’s existing design.
What follows is an often an equally funny and moving story of societal changes and class divides.
Chekhov’s story of the declining ruling classes in late 19th and early 20th century Russia is used to reflect modern issues and conversations.
Lyubov Ranyevskaya, beautifully performed by Kirsty Bushell, is an aristocratic landowner with money problems who returns to her estate and beloved cherry orchard before it is auctioned to pay off the debts.
Despite the gloom, many laughs ensue in the first act (particularly from Julius D’Silva as fellow aristocrat Simeyonov-Pischik) as the family come to terms with the realities of modern society.
The laughs turn into tears though and the tension is built before it explodes at the end.
The original Chekhov play is staged around 40 years after the emancipation of the serfs, one of the changes that led to the Russian Revolution and the final downfall of the aristocracy.
Michael Boyd uses a black and mixed-race cast in this production which chimes with Bristol’s modern debates on diversity, racial attitudes and its slave trade past.
Jude Owusu is superb as Lopakhin, the self-made landowner who ends up unexpectedly buying the Cherry Orchard. “I’ve bought the estate where my father and grandfather were slaves!” he declares in a drunken roar towards the end of the play.
Despite very little props, the stage is rich with atmosphere.
As the cherry tree petals fall and dawn and dusk is recreated with the sound of chirping birds and clever use of lighting, you can also smell the countryside.
On the morning of the press night, I read a powerful piece in the Bristol Post newspaper.
It’s an apology from the editor for a headline in 1996 which showed the faces of 16 black men jailed for dealing in crack cocaine under the words ‘Faces of Evil’.
The Post has partnered with the Bristol Old Vic & Ujima Radio to address issues like the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
“Thanks to the city’s divisions, the Bristolians who remain affected by the transatlantic slave trade never speak to the Bristolians who can’t understand why,” the editor said.
This astounding performance of The Cherry Orchard is a great start to help that change.
The Cherry Orchard runs at Bristol Old Vic until 7 April.
Images by Jon Rowley