The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov in a new version by Benedict Andrews
Donmar Warehouse
Donmar Warehouse

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Nina Hoss and Adeel Akhtar Credit: Johan Persson
June Watson Credit: Johan Persson
Nina Hoss Credit: Johan Persson
Daniel Monks and Sadie Soverall Credit: Johan Persson
Adeel Akhtar Credit: Johan Persson
Daniel Monks Credit: Johan Persson
David Ganly, Nina Hoss, Nathan Armarkwei Laryea and Daniel Monks Credit: Johan Persson
Marli Siu Credit: Johan Persson
Nathan Armarkwei Laryea and Posy Sterling Credit: Johan Persson
Marli Siu and Michael Gould Credit: Johan Persson
David Ganly and Sarah Amankwah Credit: Johan Persson

Director Benedict Andrews (Three Sisters, The Maids, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire) is known for being a new broom, sweeping away previous conceptions, interpretations and traditional takes. He brings The Cherry Orchard 'up to date', but which date, and where's Chekhov's gentle poetic soul 'music'? It's a bit of a muddle and a mess, neither tragedy, comedy or farce.

There is vaping, microphones, a three-piece band on the stage (drums, keyboard and electric guitar), music by May Kershaw of Black Country, New Road and a sense of hysteria. The hippie sixties? But the beggar is now a Dickensian, homeless little boy (Alfie Tempest) singing for his supper.

The cast, in ill-matching costumes that look pilfered from jumble sales or charity shops, sits amongst the audience in-the-round when ‘off stage’. The lights do not go down on this symbiotic arrangement. I spend my time admiring the Uzbek-influenced (I think) carpeted floor and wall (designer Magda Willi)—the design is geometric and striking.

We are all in it together in this awkwardly ‘immersive’ prosaic production: audience members are dragged up to be a bookcase or a table, invited to dance to fill the third act party scene. There is no furniture, the motley cast are board game pieces on the patterned floor. Regietheater … Andrews has done much work at the Schaubühne, Berlin. I’ve always thought of Chekhov as more Beckettian than Brechtian.

Interestingly, as I trawl through my books by and on Chekhov, a newspaper cutting falls out—from the Evening Standard in January 2010—a three-page spread on Chekhov. Famous actors speak of their experiences in various Chekhov roles and productions: Simon Russell-Beale, Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington on his travels in Siberia to discover the ‘real’ Chekhov and how it changed his mind.

And more. All English but for one, the iconoclastic Russian theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, who says Chekhov “wrote with a scalpel instead of a pen.” Serebrennikov wanted a moratorium on Chekhov for a few years to get away from clichés, to approach him from “a new perspective”. Andrews would seem to fit that bill. But, are new clichés being generated in this scalping of the play?

The production has the feel of an actor studio, actors and creatives workshopping the text in contemporary vernacular, which always get a laugh, especially Firs’s (June Watson still going strong at 89) “fuckwit”, a translation for ‘nedotyopa’, which I’ve seen translated as “silly-billy”.

Lollypop-sucking Gaev (Michael Gould) calls himself “a total bag of shit”, but would the Firs-dependant Gaev really tell his doddery nanny lackey to “shut your trap”? “Proper smart” Yasha (Nathan Armarkwei Laryea), whom Charlotta calls “a spare prick at an orgy”, has a lot to say about women in love being sluts; the usually stoical Varya (Marli Siu) shouts too much; and Dunyasha (Posy Sterling) could have stepped out of a TV soap.

I once took someone who knew nothing of Chekhov or his plays, a total novice, to see his Seagull at the Royal Court, and she said it was like EastEnders. She has a point. As does Andrews to see it through today’s prism, to take it out of aspic. I remember seeing a modern Russian Cherry Orchard at the Barbican, in which the characters had to have a blood transfusion—a wonderful metaphor.

What Andrews’s metaphor is I’m not sure... Although he is playing for laughs and audience involvement, he’s hitting the political aspect hard with Trofimov’s stance and speech on how the older landed spoilt generation have ruined the country for the next. The whole world is our orchard, not just this relic of the past, he tells Anya. Daniel Monks is idealistic and endearing; no wonder Anya (Sadie Soverall) believes in him.

She grows up during the play. But her mother doesn’t. Nina Hoss’s Ranevskaya is still hopeless with money, hopeless with practicalities, in need of love (her name means love). Hoss is ideal casting for Lyubov but seems wasted in this experimental production. She is the reason I wanted to see this Cherry Orchard.

Adeel Akhtar’s nouveau riche wheeler-dealer Lopakhin, who’s come up the hard way, a slave on the estate, is now, incredibly, owner of it—there’s vengeance for you and a form of justice. With his gold wristwatch, smart suit and shoes (no socks), he stands out from the others in their baggy tracksuits, trainers, slide sandals, mismatching outfits and flowery headscarves.

Sarah Amankwah (“au pair” Charlotta), David Ganly (Boris Simeonov-Pishchik), and Éanna Hardwicke (Semyon Epikhodov) bring tumbles and handheld dry ice mist (no stage magic here, just the nuts and bolts laid bare) to their performances.

The carpet is ripped up, the wall hangings torn down. The final act stage is bare but for their central heap, on which the forgotten Firs lies down to die in this empty, cold mansion to which she’s dedicated her life. She preferred the old ways, before the Emancipation, the catastrophe.

The men kick a football about… New ways, eh? Will Trofimov’s “cycle of injustice” be broken? We know it wasn’t and isn’t. The noise of doom, that snapping of a cable, augurs ill. Did Chekhov know how brutal the Revolution would be, though he knew it had to come and clean away the corrupt, complacent old?

The play opens with maid Dunyasha vacuuming around Lopakhin asleep on the nursery carpet, the nursery we none of us want to leave. Some never grow up like Ranevskaya, some have to grow up quickly like Lopakhin. Their affection for each other is genuine. If only…

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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