The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov adapted by Vinay Patel
HOME, Yard Theatre and English Touring Theatre
HOME, Manchester

The Cherry Orchard
The Cherry Orchard
The Cherry Orchard
The Cherry Orchard
The Cherry Orchard

In an effort to make the plays of Shakespeare relevant to contemporary audiences, directors regularly stage them in radically different places and times than originally intended. Generally, this process is not applied to other classic playwrights like Ibsen or Chekhov possibly because their works are so closely related to specific time periods or events.

Although Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is set specifically in Russia in the period after the emancipation of the serfs made it impossible for aristocrats to maintain their estates and lavish lifestyles, Vinay Patel’s adaptation shifts the story to the final frontier and the far future.

An unnamed starship travels through space seeking a habitable planet to colonise. The quest has taken so long, the ship has become decidedly rickety, but crew loyalty is ensured by a rigid adherence to tradition and to continuity of command. Everybody knows their place because the crew are clones—bred to perform specific tasks—and captains are replaced by their own clone so effectively the same people are always in charge.

But things may be about to change, Captain Prema Ramesh (Anjali Jay) indulges in a personal / vanity project—visiting a black hole—and the event horizon ensures years pass on the ship compared to months on her exploration. In the captain’s absence, the unthinkable happens—a habitable planet is discovered well before the scheduled time. The crew is agitating to abandon the mission prematurely and make landfall—a suggestion rejected by the ruling elite. Chief Engineer Sailesh Panchal (Aaron Gill) proposes a compromise: giving the crew a stake in the ship by allocating them a share in the onboard cherry orchard previously reserved for the recreation of the elite. But the ruling class are reluctant to share their privileges.

Adaptor Vinay Patel and director James McDonald are committed to the science fiction concept. The ship’s computer, silkily voiced by Chandrika Chevli, offers a very personal service. The slowly rotating set with a central control panel, designed by Rosie Elnile, is a tribute to the TARDIS. Yet there are aspects which feel past their sell-by date—a malfunctioning android and characters ending speeches with odd arm gestures.

The major innovation is the crew are all Asians while Caucasians are regarded as mythical creatures. Yet, apart from a ritual dance that opens the second act, the race of the crew seems largely irrelevant—at one point, they even sing an old sea shanty which is decidedly out of character.

This seems like a perfect time to revisit Chekhov’s tale of exploitation, ingratitude and fear of change. Workers who, during the COVID pandemic, were applauded as heroes are now given below-inflation pay rises and the hypocrisy of those in charge is laid bare. However, there are so many ideas in the play it becomes a precis of the original with insufficient time to explore the concepts in depth. The climactic unmasking of the character who stirred up the crew agitation by revealing the existence of the planet makes little impact in such a crowded script.

The play works best as a clash between the entrenched attitudes of Captain Ramesh and the radical approach of hesitant revolutionary Sailesh Panchal. Anjali Jay plays the captain with the smug complacency of someone from a privileged background—strolling around the stage with a condescending smirk and hands in pockets as if the other crew members just aren’t worth making an effort to appear respectful. Aaron Gill is very much an everyperson—terrified of change and desperate to avoid the responsibly of taking action but knowing the status quo cannot continue. The extent to which deference is the norm on the ship is apparent in the final meeting between the characters where Sailesh Panchal, despite being proved correct, is apologetic and ingratiating.

The sheer ambition of Vinay Patel’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard limits the extent to which the ideas it contains can be explored. Squeezing in all the characters from the original as well as science fiction concepts makes for a crowded script. A more radical approach—possibly trimming some of the characters—might have allowed more space for development.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Are you sure?