The Cherry Orchard – The Photoshoot (or finding my cherries)

1 Feb 2018

Ahead of the run, we caught up with photographer Seamus Ryan to find out how he captured the lead image for our upcoming spring spectacular, The Cherry Orchard.

It was late October last year when Richard Brett, the Graphic Designer at Bristol Old Vic, got in touch about shooting the lead image for their upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard. I was delighted, as I had already had the privilege of working on Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Grinning Man in 2016, so I knew an exciting collaborative and creative project lay ahead. What I didn’t predict was that by the end of the shoot I would also become something of an expert in the international trade of exotic fruit and vegetables.

Richard already had the bones of the concept for the image. He knew from the director, Michael Boyd, that the play would be full of humour and sadness, as it addressed the social tension between the two leads and the play’s key theme of change. We discussed the possible layout and the colour palette. Preparing for a photoshoot is an all-consuming process. All sorts of disparate elements and people must come together to form the final image. In this case, the talented team from Bristol would provide costumes and make-up. A time was found in the busy schedules of actors Kirsty Bushell and Jude Owusu. Apart from designing the lighting, I was to source the set and props. The shoot was less than a week away but everything was coming together nicely. What could possibly go wrong?

I first sensed we might have a problem after checking all the usual places for cherries. My local supermarkets and fruit stalls were devoid of them. I extended the search to more specialist fruit suppliers like Harrods and Selfridges. They too drew a blank. I was told the season had ended in late August so supply was very limited. Mild panic began to envelope me. How can we do a shoot for The Cherry Orchard without a cherry? As a last resort back-up, I went online and ordered some fake cherries. They were hat decorations and bound to look dodgy but I was confident we would not need them. London is one of the culinary capitals of the world and I had a new lead…

At 7am on a wet Wednesday, I met Gary Voight, owner of Elsey & Bent, famed purveyors of exotic fruit and veg and based for generations in Borough Market. If anyone could find me a cherry, this was the man. He gave me hope, as he had heard there might be some cherries flying in from Argentina that night. He would personally call on all his contacts at New Covent Garden Market at 4am the next morning. In the meantime, a friend of a friend in the fruit business also agreed to trawl the wholesale markets. He also had word of South American night flights. There was nothing more I could do but wait.

My studio was a blur of activity as we prepared for the arrival of our stars, Kirsty and Jude. Although they had both been cast for the production by Michael, they hadn’t actually met each other til the shoot. The instant chemistry between them was inspiring and infectious. Two great acting talents riffing off each other, full of ideas, wit and creativity. I knew straight away that we were going to get something special. I also instantly knew that I really wanted to see the real thing on stage in Bristol. From the many variations we shot on the day, one final image was chosen. It now graces the walls of the theatre and train stations, features in national and local press, and is the cover image of Bristol Old Vic’s season brochure. It will be seen by thousands and I hope will serve the play well. I couldn’t be happier.

At the heart of the image and central to the poster’s communication are 47 of the most ripe and succulent cherries one could ever wish for. Lopakhin, played by Jude, holds one up as if symbolic of his new position. A cut-glass bowl is full to the brim, suggesting the orchard outside. Well, not really. It turns out we picked the one week of the year when not a single cherry was available to buy for any amount of love or money in London. My search was in vain. Instead, with some skilful stalk painting by Richard, we used the fake ones that had arrived the day before the shoot and surprised us all by being so convincing. Indeed, they were so realistic that people kept reaching out to eat them. Now that the image is out there and has a life of its own, I no longer view them as fake cherries. Instead, in the spirit of good theatre, they have embraced the role of real cherries and like all good actors will be staying in character throughout the production.