'The Cherry Orchard' review or 'Is this an express train?!'

The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov – adapted by Simon Stephens
Young Vic, 20th October 2014

Well that was bracing! Simon Stephens’ adaptation of ‘The Cherry Orchard’, directed with panache by Katie Mitchell, clocks in at just under 2 hours. There is no interval. The language is stripped back and gleefully direct. The characters are huge. The comedy billows out in great gusts and there’s a weird, stomach clenching tension to the whole show which sucks the breath right out of you.

This isn’t Chekhov as we know it – and thank God for that. I have seen many ‘Cherry Orchards’ that have been so grand that they’ve practically buckled under the weight of their own earnestness – and so have I. But Mitchell and Stephens’ version, although framed by a familiarly shabby mansion (brilliant dilapidated detail from designer Vicki Mortimer), feels light and nimble on its feet. This isn’t a Chekhov production that is trying to impress its audience – but to enthral, exhilarate and engage.

Where to start with a show that veers off in so many wild but necessary directions? The characters seem as good a place to start as any. ‘The Cherry Orchard’ is often pitched as a star vehicle, during which a suitably grand dame plays Lyubov Ranevskaya, the aristocratic Russian matriarch whose beloved home and orchard will be soon be up for public auction and who has done ‘awful things’ in a bid to keep her family afloat and herself amused. I last saw the role played by Zoe Wanamaker at the National and it was very impressive but the performance and production felt ever so ‘theatre-y’. What is perhaps surprising is that, for all the flourishes and sparky liberties taken with this Young Vic production, it feels more realistic – or at least more faithful to the spirit of Chekhov’s vibrant original – than the more refined and supposedly ‘authentic’ productions I have seen in the past.

Whilst in past versions of The Orchard, Ranevskaya acts as the linchpin of the show – the dramatic centre around which everything and everyone revolves - Kate Duchêne is more like the unsettling undercurrent, which bubbles dangerously beneath the stage. Duchêne’s Ranevskaya isn’t particularly grand. She wears a non-descript black dress and her voice isn’t hugely imposing – yet there is something thrillingly unstable about her. A weird sorrow and seediness clings at her skin.  

Katie Mitchell and her music (Paul Clark) and sound (Gareth Fry) bods have accented the show – and the characters within it (particularly Ranevskaya) – with bold bursts of music. A symphony of tension builds throughout, shading in the already distinctive characters. Varya mentions the ‘awful’ things that her mother has done to preserve the family and clanging chords swell up around us. When Ranevskaya mentions her dead mother, the cast freezes and ghostly music tingles; Ranevskaya alludes to her drowned son and sharp dissonances clang in the background.

This is Chekov with all the edges exposed – odd and angular and spiky. The music carves out a sense of sorrow and mortality that is sometimes muted in more restrained productions. Spiky performances bring Chekhov’s themes into glaring focus, as does Stephens’ boldly pared down script. Gawn Grainger, who plays Ranevskaya’s ageing servant, spends most of his time crawling about the stage with his back bent in two. At one point he scrabbles about on the floor to retrieve Ranevskaya’s footstool. He is kicked in the guts and treated appallingly. ‘My life has passed me by’, he says, and the injustice of a life spent kneeling at the feet of others, is made shockingly clear.

Other character verge towards caricature in a way that some critics have sniffed at but I think only adds further layers to this intriguingly textured production. In the case of such a lucid and purposeful show, heightened characters and oddly accented dramatic encounters do not simplify or trivialise the play – but actually deepen it, emphasizing the ideas and conflicts nestling within this all-too-frequently papered down production.

Angus Wright plays Ranevskaya’s brother, Gaev, as a man sunken inside himself and at the end of his wits. His speech practically leaks out of him and his eyes are permanently cast downwards. He has some strange verbal tics and, whilst he is almost always accompanied by other people, he seems set apart from the world. The fact that this man, over all those smart women that surround him, is sent to represent the family at the public auction of their house, reflects the unchallenged oppression of women in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Sarah Malin plays the governess, Charlotte, as some sort of bonkers caricature that might have leaped out of a Country Living magazine – on the week it was being edited by Russell Brand. She is crackers. At one point, she rushes on stage stark naked whilst brandishing a rifle; she chomps down on a cucumber as if it is a penis she wants to DESTROY and performs fiery magic tricks. She is the spark and laughter and energy and dynamism that none of the aristocratic characters seem able to embrace. She is the possibility of change – and a vivid reminder that Chekhov is very, very funny. 

Threaded amongst all of this are cheeky references to guns – which Chekhov always believed should be used if ever mentioned – and mournful guitar solos, really quite vicious sexual trysts, beautiful changes in the lighting state, a gentle build of a haunting jazz ensemble somewhere off stage and always, always, the quiet rumble of the train – and all the change that train represents – storming through the production and threatening to smash us all to smithereens.