Tuesday 4 June 2024

The Cherry Orchard

 Donmar Warehouse, London

18th May, 2024, matinee

This orchard is heritage listed

The above line, a cry for preservation from Benedict Andrews’ new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard which is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse, clearly isn’t the case with Chekhov’s play. Nor should it be the case for any play. Theatres aren’t museums after all. Andrews, whose memorable production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic was a theatrical highlight of the last decade, has stripped the play of any historical trappings and given it a contemporary sentiment. The intended effect, I suppose, is to mine the emotional and intellectual depths of the play, to unlock new meaning and appeal to new audiences. The actual effect, despite it being an immensely watchable production, is to dampen the play’s dramatic tension.

Updating modern classics is no new thing of course. Indeed, in his Streetcar, the setting gave the play a refreshed immediacy, reminding us of the ever-resonant problems of obsession and poverty. And even with Chekhov, Andrews’ own reimagining of Three Sisters in 2012 was praised for getting to the heart of the drama. On the other side of the Atlantic, a modern-set Uncle Vanya adapted by Heidi Schreck and starring Steve Carrel is currently playing at the Public. Contemporary settings can help to remove formalities, traditions or simply a perception of being old fashioned which can act as barriers to the audience. With it comes the opportunity to highlight universal themes within the text. In Andrews’ Cherry Orchard, Yasha vapes, Firs calls someone a fuckwit, and Gaev seems to be permanently sucking on a Chupa-Chup. Instead of turn of the 20th century Russia, we’re led to believe these are characters and issues directly relating to today. The setting’s eponymous orchard and the dilapidated estate it sits on most definitely remain in Russia. Magda Willi’s minimal design also gives the play a modern aesthetic, stripping the stage of any set pieces. The audience sits on all four sides of the Donmar’s small stage and James Farncombe’s bright lighting keeps the house lights up throughout the play. It’s an unadorned setting with nowhere to hide, including for the audience: at one point, Gaev (Michael Gould) picks an audience member to join him onstage to act as a bookshelf. The most notable marker of time and place are Merle Hensel’s contemporary costumes, and the graphic (but not too ornate that they strike as period) rugs which carpet the floor and walls. Time and place are clearly defined, but not so much that they overwhelm the production with a particular point about contemporary Russia.

Ranevskaya (Nina Hoss) returns to her country estate after spending some time self-exiled in Paris. Grieving her son and careless with cash, Ranevskaya rolls pennies through other characters’ legs and lends money she doesn’t have to her likewise broke neighbour. With the threat of an auction looming, Lopakhin (Adeel Akhtar) suggests that her only hope is to chop down the orchard and turn the estate into a tourist retreat. Despite an excellent programme note, and Chekhov’s clear interest in environmental and ecological change, there’s only a small reference to climate change. Instead, Andrews’ adaptation is keen to focus on class and a society on the cusp of change. Akhtar’s Lopakhin is the son of a ‘lowest of the low’ Serf who was a servant on the estate. He now epitomises nouveau riche complete with a fancy suit, gold watch and the swagger to match. It’s a compelling performance with menace underneath the bonhomie. Part of this social change sees landowners selling land at whatever cost to make a quick buck and Lopakhin later drunkenly announces he’s the new owner of the estate. In the second half, a symbolic, loud and inexplicable twang is heard. Possibly a cable snapping in a distant mine, the noise, and what it might represent, is closer than the characters like to think.

There are areas of Andrews’ concept which are less persuasive, including his treatment of onstage/offstage space. When actors are off, they’re still in view sitting in the front rows of the audience. It struck me that The Cherry Orchard is a play where entrances and exits are loaded with dramatic potential. Characters return, depart, move on (or not). To eliminate them sucks much of the drama out of the play. In the second act, Ranevskaya questions what Trofimov (Daniel Monks) knows about life to the verge of mocking him. Monks then returns to his seat followed by Anya and Varya’s entering and laughing that he’s fallen down the stairs. But of course, he hasn’t – we can see him sitting down. The effect is to make you think about the power of entrances and exits rather than experience their drama. The production is not without its merits. Once the orchard is sold, the denouement leading up to Ranevskaya leaving the estate is effectively rendered. To stage clearing the house, the actors do a ‘get-out’, ripping the carpets and gaffer tape from the floor and walls to leave a bare stage, a house and a theatre ready for its next life. When they vacate the property, the actors leave the auditorium. For Ranevskaya, there is a finality suggested to her exit, her goodbyes contrasting with Lopakhin’s opportunism, rubbing his hands together and saying farewell only ‘until the Spring’.

In addition to Akhtar, there’s a host of enjoyable performances. A younger Ranevskaya than I’ve previously seen, Hoss brings outs the careless naivety of Ranevskaya. June Watson quietly stands out as Firs, slowly shuffling and grumbling around the large house until she’s the only one left (although I wondered if she was in character or not for her offstage naps).  Eanna Hardwicke, making his professional stage debut after his chilling performance in The Sixth Commandment for which he was BAFTA-nominated, adds a much-needed injection of humour with his clowning and incessantly squeaking shoes. And much of the rest of the cast provide a youthful bounce and (perhaps na├»ve) optimism which keep the pace up nicely. They are well complemented by a trio of musicians who underscore much of the second act onstage with the cast performing into microphones (the music is composed by May Kershaw and musical direction and additional composition by Zac Gvi). Writing this a few weeks after seeing it, I can’t deny that Andrews’ aesthetic stays with you. But, despite the strength of Chekhov’s play, the interpretation gets in its way. The orchard has been stripped. But at what cost?

The Cherry Orchard plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 22nd June. For more information, please visit https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/

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Nina Hoss and Adeel Akhtar in The Cherry Orchard. Credit: Johan Persson