Friday, 17 October 2014

Theatre review: The Cherry Orchard

Katie Mitchell uses a new translation by Simon Stephens to present a streamlined version of Chekhov's final full-length play at the Young Vic. The Cherry Orchard's action takes place over a few months, a comparatively short period for Chekhov, made to feel even shorter in just under two hours without interval. Ranevskaya (Kate Duchêne) returns to the country estate she grew up on after a long absence. While her family's old money has been dwindling, their estate manager Lopakhin (Dominic Rowan,) the son of serfs, has been gradually amassing a fortune of his own, and has some ideas about how they can keep their land. Too absorbed in their own personal dramas, though, and unwilling to face the prospect of change, Ranevskaya and her family ignore his warnings until it's too late.

One oft-repeated cliché about The Cherry Orchard is that it's eerily prophetic, not just in its concerns about deforestation but also in its prediction, in 1904, that Russia's wealthy aristocracy were sleepwalking into a world that no longer had a place for them. The former idea doesn't get much breathing space here, but the shortened running time really focuses the play on the latter.

Editing out nearly a third of the play and running all four acts without an interval really lends a sense of urgency - you can feel time ticking down to the auction that will see Ranevskaya's home sold off, as she procrastinates on making any kind of decision that might save her, finally holding a party as the auction itself goes on in the distance. I don't know how well it would have worked for someone less familiar with the play going in, but I found the way Lopakhin's suggestions were patronised or downright ignored a strong setup for the way he'll turn the tables on them in the end.

Other subtleties are sacrificed though; Rowan and Natalie Klamar as Varya do well enough in the famously heartbreaking scene of the proposal that never happens, but they're up against quite a rushed aesthetic. Some of the characters barely register - it felt as if Trofimov (Paul Hilton) and Anya (Catrin Stewart) could have been cut completely with little difference to the overall picture, and I could have done with more of Hugh Skinner's clumsy Yepikhodov, providing the only moments of humour in a play Chekhov insisted was a comedy. (I still think there's a chance Chekhov saying it's a comedy was the joke.) On the other hand the disrespectful servant Yasha comes more to the foreground than usual, thanks in part to Tom Mothersdale playing him as an out-and-out sadist with a particular delight in torturing the elderly butler, Gawn Grainger's Firs.

In a recent interview, Mitchell said she was "wary" of some of the most familiar tropes of European theatre, like gratuitous nudity. In completely unrelated news, there's aSEVERE VADGE WARNING!from Sarah Malin's rather jolly-hockey-sticks take on the eccentric governess Charlotte. Of course it wouldn't be a Katie Mitchell show if you could see and hear everything that happens; it's not quite as dimly-lit as some of her past shows have been, although the comparatively small venue may help in avoiding the headaches I've sometimes got from trying to see what's going on. Having said that, I know I joke about the curtain call in Mitchell's shows being the part where you find out what the actors look like, but I genuinely had no idea it had been Sarah Ridgeway playing Dunyasha until that point. And while Vicki Mortimer's set offers good sightlines, obviously Mitchell manages to find every corner that's blocked from big chunks of the audience, and plonk her actors there at regular intervals. They turn their backs to the audience a lot as well of course, especially when delivering lines, which I guess is a handy way of finding out which of your actors has the best projection. Hugh Skinner: Very clear. Angus Wright as Gaev: Consistently inaudible.

So this is really a mixed bag. It's definitely a "take" on The Cherry Orchard as opposed to a straightforward production, and as someone who's familiar with the play and finds most productions of it ponderous and dull, I was pleased to find something with more of an energy and urgency to it. On the other hand there's no question this is at the expense of several layers of depth to the play, as well as of most of the characters. Ian wasn't familiar with the play going in, and wasn't quite sure what to make of it by the end, which backs up my suspicion that this is a riff on The Cherry Orchard more for the benefit of people who know the play, rather than one that would enlighten anyone new to it.

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in a version by Simon Stephens is booking until the 29th of November at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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