The Cherry Orchard

Anton Chekhov, English language version by Simon Stephens
Young Vic Theatre

Kate Duchêne (Lyubov Ranevskaya) & Dominic Rowan (Alexander Lopakhin) Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Paul Hilton (Peter Trofimov) Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
The Company Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

One is never quite sure what to expect from director Katie Mitchell, especially when she is paired with Simon Stephens.

Strangely, by taking a play by Chekhov and bringing it up to date, they are merely following today’s fashion with a number of recent productions trying the same including a trio from Anya Reiss, the most recent of which, Uncle Vanya, opened at St James Theatre only three days before.

On this occasion, the adaptation takes considerable liberties with both plot and characterisation, often elevating minor characters to give them greater emphasis and significance.

The language is 21st century with occasional expletives to make the point, while the costumes and setting seem drawn from eras between the 1920s and today, which can clash with a story that remains marooned in the original period near the turn of the last century.

The names also take some getting used to for devotees, single Christian names replacing the usual surnames or patronymics so that Mme Ranevskaya is Lyubov and Lopakhin becomes Alexander.

That choice also reflects a rather prosaic script that seems as utilitarian as much of the plotting. The latter loses something to get down below two hours but also has a tendency to over-explain as if not always trusting the playwright or his audience.

The basics are the same though. Lyubov, played by Kate Duchêne, is a generous drama queen who lacks the usual self-possession and glamour but still garners some sympathy as she loses her estate to an honourable principle that makes little sense in a materialistic, contemporary context.

Her brother, Angus Wright's Leo (Gaev), is a hopeless but kind-hearted dolt, selflessly supported by Gawn Grainger who is touching as ancient Firs, the last remnant of the days when the family lived well at the expense of its serfs.

Their irritant and potential nemesis is the nouveau riche Alexander, well portrayed by Dominic Rowan who gets the mixture of childhood awe and adult power just right.

Of the younger generation, Catrin Stewart plays the actual daughter Anya, now passionate about Paul Hilton as the perennial student with radical tendencies Peter Trofimov, while Natalie Klamar is Lyubov’s adopted daughter Varya, who dotes on an unimpressed Alexander whose only interest is building wealth.

Comic turns are variously provided by mad magician Charlotta, estuarine Yasha and prat-falling Simeon (Yepikhodov), respectively Sarah Malin, Tom Mothersdale and Hugh Skinner.

As with all updated versions of classics, the question to ask is whether the play has been illuminated by viewing it from a different perspective. With its drab atmosphere and concentration on lesser characters, that is probably not going to be the case either for Chekhov freaks or those hoping to be wowed by a legendary playwright.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher