The Cherry Orchard
23 October 2014
I should confess to a long history with Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Along with Hamlet, Macbeth and Hedda Gabler, The Cherry Orchard is one of the classics I have seen most often, not always happily. It was also a subject of serious study at University, where a slightly “out there” tutor made my classmates and I lie on the floor and imagine we were chopped cherry trees while she read the text to us…
I have seen tragic versions, comic versions, tragic-comic versions and downright stupid versions of The Cherry Orchard, but can safely say I have never seen a version quite like the one now playing at The Young Vic, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Katie Mitchell.
It is dark, brutal even, with no trace of irony lightening the grim circumstances which culminate in the destruction of the Gaev family’s beloved Cherry Orchard. Set firmly in the present, this version lacks languid notions about the past, does not spend too much time on the intricacies of character and prefers shock and blatant slapstick to more gentle ways of making points. There is little sense of old versus new Russia, little sense of the changing of traditions and times and less complexity about everything. But it is radiantly bleak, full of brittle, awful people leading duplicitous and untruthful lives. In that way, it is a compelling re-imagining of Chekhov’s masterpiece.
Chekhov insisted The Cherry Orchard was a comedy but its first director, Stanislavski, thought it a tragedy and directed it as such. Chekhov was horrified, but Stanislavski’s view really has coloured all the versions that followed his. Including this one.
Stephens has shortened the play considerably (this runs at about 2 hours, no interval; I have seen productions last over four hours) and has made some very stark decisions about the characters. Yasha is a vicious self-serving murderer and seducer; Lophakin, fundamentally grasping and insincere; Charlotte, a confrontational feminist activist magician; Simeon, a gormless klutz with an aura of pretension; Ranevskaya, more courtesan and fishwife than faded aristocracy.
Mitchell runs with all of this, like an Olympian, and the result is a brisk, carefully composed symphony of pain, anguish and loss. While those who know The Cherry Orchard may raise an eyebrow or two, the fact is that this adaptation holds together and tells a gripping story about the frailty of life and the mechanics of money and duplicity. It’s as unusual as it is arresting.
Who would have thought that the star of a production of The Cherry Orchard would be the actor playing Firs, the old manservant who is unswervingly loyal to the Gaev family? Yet, that is the case here.
Gawn Grainger’s beautifully crafted and impossibly delicate portrayal of a life given in service is quite sensational, from his first bent-over shuffle across the stage, carrying Ranevskaya’s handbag, to his collapse to the floor when he realises the family has locked him in, condemned him to death when they departed for other pastures. (In this version, Firs’ fate is sealed by Yasha’s deliberate actions rather than absentmindedness, which, of course, makes that fate both worse and better)
Grainger is just perfection and his speech about what used to happen to the cherries from the orchard will stay with me a long time, as will the painful moment when he got down on all fours to secure a footstool for his uncaring mistress. His final, tragic realisation of his doom is devastating.
Tom Mothersdale is perfectly vile as Yasha, the symbol of the rebellious youth, the wanton future. His excesses are as clear as his magnetism. The bizarre scene where he and Simeon sing together in Act Two is strangely powerful. Mothersdale is rather like the Russian Nick Cotton, a ball of anger, sexual power, chance and manipulation; the sense that violence is only a moment away is profound. A young actor to watch.
Dominic Rowan, a really terrific actor, is in marvellous form as Lopakhin although the way Stephens has conceived the role limits the range of emotions required. This Lopakhin is not very nice at all and revels in his acquisition of the Gaev estate. The scene where he destroys Varya (twice) is grim indeed, but Rowan makes him tolerable, understandable and whole. Quite an achievement here, with this pared down, slightly twisted view of the character.
Much can go wrong with the portrayal of Leonid, the billiards loving, long-winded, somewhat dotty brother to Ranevskaya, but not here: Angus Wright brilliantly, and succinctly, establishes this foolish man and his foibles. His speech about the 100 year old cupboard was pure gold. As was his sense of dismal failure when he returned to the estate, the auction having delivered the family Estate to Lopakhin.
As Varya, Natalie Klamar is adept at conveying the sense of her character’s pragmatism, as well as her sense of romanticism and isolation within a family that treats her more like a trusted servant than a loved member. Her voice, full of rich possibilities and an entrancing timbre, is given full range and effectively conveys Varya’s many moods and thoughts. The moment when she realises that the man she loves/despises has given stewardship of the Estate to the simpleton Simeon is incredibly touching, swathed in aching, heart-breaking realisation.
I found the eternal student, Peter Trofimov (Paul Hilton), a trifle too dour and flower power (at the same time) to be the counter-point originally envisaged by Chekhov and the role of Anya seems somehow reduced in this version, although Catrin Stewart was suitably beautiful and princessy. As Simeon, Hugh Skinner, who seemed to have based his performance on Matt Smith’s bumbling Doctor Who, was cutely clumsy and out of place, but not much of his comic slapstick shtick really landed as it might.
Charlotte (Sarah Malin) seemed more a Katie Mitchell device for trickery than an interesting character in her own right. Her magic tricks in Act Three were grand, beautifully done, but it was hard to understand a word she said as Malin’s diction was appalling. Her brief, silly, nude scene was as redundant as her chomping on a phallic cucumber or her reference to her vagina as her “badger” – shock value distractions. Rather pointless.
There is good work from the rest of the cast (Stephen Kennedy’s Boris is especially fine) but not much about Kate Duchêne’s portrayal of Lyubov Ranevskaya rang true. More sexual miscreant than foolish, faded old-world grandeur, more petulant and impulsive than lost in a fog of incomprehension about her circumstances, more coarse and common than stylish and cultured, this was a very different take on this great role. I did not care for it in the slightest, but that is not all down to Duchêne; she delivers exactly what Stephens and Mitchell wanted. It is unclear to me, though, why that was what was wanted. The result is flat and quite two-dimensional. Sadly.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is excellent and provides a very clear sense of the faded grandeur of the once bustling, elaborate Estate. James Farncombe’s lighting is very atmospheric, although occasionally things are just too shadowy to permit clarity.
Gareth Fry’s sound effects are, in that trademark Katie Mitchell discombobulating way, effective, although personally I find the sound of a single axe chopping a more haunting, terrifying and profoundly tragic sound than that made by modern machinery whirring and ploughing the tress into oblivion. But the almost apocalyptic sound that shatters the silence on the Estate in Act Two is really quite something and the amplified sound of a train moving apace (the wheels of time and motion turning) proves a jolting, but effective, scene changing leitmotif.
This is a Chekhov experiment which largely works. It’s never dull and the intention of both adaptor and director is clear and faithfully fulfilled by the large, gifted cast. But it has few highs (none that are joyful or ironic, certainly) except in its darkness, its black comedic aspects and its bleak condemnation of those who would not move with the times. Mothersdale, Rowan and Wright take the limelight, but it is definitely Gawn Grainger’s magnificent Firs which will be the enduring memory of this production.