The Cherry Orchard
In my first year of university, my friend Sian was helping out at a promotion for a student production of The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov. She invited me along – there was free vodka and some nibbles, and some actors performed a scene from the play. The idea was to encourage people to buy tickets for the full production – and apparently to attract the attention of potential sponsors.
At the start of the performance, the man next to me turned to me and said something along the lines of “I’m looking forward to this!” I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember being disconcerted. We were both sitting cross-legged on the floor, and he was looking at me as though we shared a special bond. He was about thirty years old, and had very intense eyes and a thick Russian accent. At the end of the short extract from the play, he clapped wildly and turned to me again. “Fantastic! Absolutely fantastic! Have you tried the free vodka yet? Russian drink!”
It had been a rather quiet, contemplative scene, and the man’s enthusiasm seemed very disproportionate. I concluded that he had had too much of the free vodka, and excused myself and went to look for Sian.
An Unexpected Mission
I didn’t think about the Russian man again until the end of the night. The actors and their helpers, including Sian, ended up going to a student nightclub, and I went along too with a few of the other guests. At about two in the morning, Sian and I left the club to head back to our student halls. But we were stopped by an older student called Serge, who asked us to help him.
Serge was tangentially involved in the production of The Cherry Orchard. He was half-Russian, and he had a bit of a sweet spot for Sian. Serge and I had gone to the same school, but this was the first conversation we had ever had.
The Russian man was pretty drunk by this point, and Serge was trying to look after him. The Russian was staggering around saying things like “Party back at my place!”
Serge quietly explained the situation to me and Sian. “This guy has offered to sponsor the entire production of the play, but he’s getting annoyed because the actors and the producers are all getting drunk and ignoring him. We need to make sure he has a good night, or he’ll pull their funding and sink the whole play.”
I’m not sure exactly why this was Serge’s problem. I think he was friends with the producers and was trying to salvage what was turning into quite an awkward situation.
“I have an eight-a.m. start tomorrow morning,” said Sian uncertainly.
“Please,” said Serge. “I need you. I can’t do this on my own. Just walk him back with me, have one drink and then go.”
So Sian and I helped Serge steer this sozzled man through the streets of Oxford. He was a big man, muscled and bulky, with a brutal haircut and the same intense look in his eyes that I had first noticed. In broken English he tried to explain to me why he wanted to pay for The Cherry Orchard. “In this country, there is very bad stereotype of Russians,” he said. “Is bad! I want English people to see the play and see that there is more to us than stereotype.” He then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening living up to, and exceeding, the stereotype.
By the time we got back to his building, he was boasting about his home. “You will see, you will see,” he said. “Is very special penthouse! Round the back of Oxford Castle – very expensive, because I have lots of money! You will see!”
The Russian Penthouse
It was a surprise to learn that central Oxford had any fancy penthouses at all. But up we went, to the top floor, and the Russian staggered into a bright, sleek apartment. As soon as Sian, Serge and I were inside, he locked the door and led us into his living room. “Guess how much money I paid for this penthouse!” he cried gleefully. “Guess!” We all mumbled something or other, but he poured us tumblers full of vodka and insisted on us playing the guessing game until he smugly told us the right answer.
“In Russia we drink vodka!” he boomed. “Vodka is good!” Pressing our vodkas into our hands, he switched on the sound system on the television, flipping through the music options to Girl On Fire by Alicia Keys. “This has twenty thousand tracks!” he said eagerly, looking into our faces as he ramped up the volume. “Twenty thousand! Very expensive! Anything you could want, is on here.” When the song finished, he played it again from the beginning.
My memory gets quite hazy at this point, because he got quite angry if we ever looked like we weren’t drinking the vodka fast enough, and he continuously topped up our drinks. I don’t even like vodka, and Sian and I were both tired and keen to go home. But the door was locked, and when we suggested that we might leave, the Russian man wouldn’t hear of it. “Party all night!” he cried. “Stay! Lots of space!” And he showed us all the rooms, gloating over each of the ornately-furnished rooms.
We tactfully tried to emphasise Sian’s early start in a few hours, and the Russian got quite cross. “You come, drink my vodka, then go?” he snapped. “No – you stay! We have fun!”
Serge saw that things were getting quite uncomfortable. He spoke Russian to the man, trying to butter him up, and the two of them smoked some cigarettes on the balcony. It was beginning to resemble a hostage situation, with Serge as the mediator.
Girl On Fire was still playing on loop. Sian took up the TV controls and tried to change it. The two of us huddled on the sofa feeling quite powerless, until the Russian bounded back into the room, took the controls from Sian and put Girl On Fire back on.
He went on and on about all the money he’d made until I asked him what he did for a living. The first time I asked, he didn’t answer. The second time he looked at me evasively and said, “I make… opportunities… for very rich Russians.” He said it in such a shady way that I immediately concluded he was some kind of criminal, and I later found out that Sian and Serge had guessed exactly the same.
The vodka kept coming. Girl On Fire kept playing. The Russian held court, staggering around and talking emphatically about various subjects. “Twenty thousand tracks!” he stressed again, jabbing his finger at the TV but making no effort to change the song. At one point he looked at Sian and said “I need better English. I have girlfriend, she live in Switzerland, in huge big castle. She have lots and lots of money. I go by helicopter to visit her in the castle. But she no speak good English. Maybe I dump her and make you my girlfriend? No sex, only English!” It sounded like such a genuine, businesslike proposal that I half-expected him to stick out his hand and ask Sian to shake on it. If he had, I’m not sure what Sian would have done. We felt very much at the mercy of this man, and the door was still locked.
At four in the morning, he finally relented. We all thanked him profusely for his hospitality, and he extracted promises from us to return very soon. (I still feel a little bit bad that we never did.) He unlocked the door and the three of us staggered out of the Russian penthouse and into the lift, Girl On Fire still ringing in our ears. I think our efforts did succeed in saving the play: our friend bankrolled the whole production, and maybe a few student thespians even challenged their stereotypes about Russians.