Theatre Critic and Journalist

Chiller Chekhov: The Young Vic’s Cherry Orchard

Chiller Chekhov: The Young Vic’s Cherry Orchard

This piece was shortlisted for the Observer Anthony Burgess Prize 2014.

The Cherry Orchard is a play about change. It plays best in moments of extreme uncertainty. The more imminent upheaval feels, the more urgent and radical that needs be, the more Chekhov’s play yields fruit. In 2014, it’s found its moment – and in Simon Stephens and Katie Mitchell, adaptor and director respectively, it’s found two fine messengers.

Mitchell and Chekhov have always been a snug fit. This is her fifth major Chekhov, the one that completes the set. Her meticulous naturalism, which bends ordinary behaviour until it seems ever so slightly bizarre, treads that Chekhovian tragicomic tightrope perfectly. Mitchell spins day-to-day chores and old, ingrained habits into a kind of choreography. Both of them make banality balletic. Both are master coders too, able to implant meaning in the most unthinking of actions: a fidget, say, or a favourite spot to sit.

Chekhov wrote this, his last play, with Russia on the cusp of revolution. It would be another 13 years before the Bolshevik uprising, but within months of The Cherry Orchard’s 1904 premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre, a precursory revolution had taken hold in Russia. Like the Ranevsky family, great swathes of the country’s rural gentry had sold off or remortgaged their land to manage their debts. The elimination of serfdom 40 years earlier had fundamentally destabilised the economy. Russia was gripped with uncertainty and with it, genuine anxiety.

That’s what Stephens and Mitchell tap into here, and it’s what ties Chekhov’s play to the present moment. This is a Cherry Orchard forged out of fear, played in a state of breathless panic. Everyone’s on their guard. Conversations are snatched and shoulders looked over twitchily. Something’s about to give – only nobody quite knows what. Or when. Or how.

Well, next to nobody. Alexander Lopakhin (Dominic Rowan) has it all figured out. The Ranevskys’ estate manager understands that the family needs to deal with its deficit problem or else lose its land. He’s got a solution: build and rent cottages in place of the now uneconomic cherry orchard. Lyubov Ranevsky (Kate Duchêne), however, can’t bear to see the orchard destroyed. It’s Downton Abbey series three, basically: Lord Grantham’s in the very same fix.

As the deadline draws near, with the estate due to be auctioned off, Mitchell ratchets up the panic. The Radanevsky family, their coats clasped tight, huddle in a corner like survivors of some nuclear winter. Servants scutter this way and that, hotfooting it through the room as if rushing to – or maybe from – the scene of an accident. They look like citizens of Pompeii, preparing to flee as Vesuvius erupts. At any moment a tray might clatter to the floor; a glass might smash. Everything’s fraught. Nothing’s quite in control.

Pompeii is right – or maybe Rome’s better. This is the end of an era, the brink of catastrophe. There’s a last gasp, devil-may-care hedonism at play. The normal rules don’t apply. All bets are off. Lovers rush through, hand-in-hand and giggling, in search of a bedroom. Staff glug champagne dregs when their bosses’ backs are turned. Tom Mothersdale’s snarling Yasha snaffles cigars in their absence and laughs in their faces. Disrespect is catching – and brazen. Debt-ridden Boris (Stephen Kennedy, looking like he’s not slept in weeks) guzzles down an entire bottle of pills. The gamble’s irrelevant: get high or die trying, both have their merits.

Chekhov himself famously declared that The Cherry Orchard had “turned out not a drama, but a comedy, even in places a farce.” In this skittering, jittery momentum, Mitchell finds the exact energy of farce, only without providing a pratfall or punchline. There’s no release. It’s nerve-wracking and enervating; like watching a bullet ricochet around a room, waiting for it to find someone’s chest. It’s fingernails down blackboard stuff. Something’s coming. Something’s got to give.

This, then, is The Cherry Orchard as gothic horror. Stephens sets it all in the nursery – always the eeriest room in literature. Designer Vicky Mortimer leans Victorian toys – old wooden sleighs and scooters, dusty instruments –against the walls, around a small iron bed. It’s arctic summer: midnight but – discomfitingly – still light. Crisp, chilly sunlight bleaches the room, until, that is, the shutters are closed, wound shut with a creaking mechanism that’s like raising a castle’s drawbridge. Then, all is glow and gloom. Light streams in through doorways, casting long shadows of looming figures. (It’s a beautiful stage, lit to perfection by James Farncombe. It’s like a Vermeer come to life.)

When that unknown noise comes, the mournful breaking string, it shakes the whole house; a truly seismic event. The poor passer-by walks right on inside, accosting the family in their own home, not crossing their path mid-stroll. He doesn’t ask meekly for spare change; he coughs up his lungs and demands “some fucking money,” then leaves, laughing as he goes. It’s haunting and tense: Chekhov as chiller.

But the measure of any Cherry Orchard isn’t how well it conveys our fear of change, but how it helps us to handle it. Mitchell’s found a quietly radical take: she champions a minor character, Charlotte Ivanovna.

Stephens and Mitchell are as damning as ever of the Ranevskys. Lyubov and Gayev are children – hence the nursery setting – incapable of facing facts. Firs, their trusty old servant, still nannies them: wrapping them up warm and helping them dress. Duchêne’s Lyubov talks with storytime simplicity, in absolutes: “the dark corner,” “the whitest white.” Angus Wright plays Gayev, her middle-aged billiards-obsessed brother, like a child of Narnia. He might vow to ride to the rescue, but he’s blind to reality. He’d only turn up on a hobbyhorse.

It’s all rather literary, actually – right down to the tiny ‘Drink Me’ sherries dished out. The old family cupboard, which Gayev wishes happy birthday, becomes a bookcase. It’s a shrine of sorts; to knowledge or, rather, to old certainties. The Ranevskys pin their hopes for “the possibility of a better future” on its contents. In fact, books hold old solutions to past problems. Like the Ranevskys, they’re stuck in the past.

Better to look ahead like the pragmatic Lopakhin. Dominic Rowan plays him spick and span in a slim-fit suit. He’s a self-made man, from a long line of serfs, and in buying the estate he believes himself – and his ancestors – safe, sound and secure. But his holiday home solution is nothing new. It’s a temporary fix that replicates Ranevsky mistakes. It depends on demand just as the cherries ded before it. He’ll have to sell up himself in time.

Mitchell makes the point beautifully: she asset strips the estate. Come Act Four, the nursery is empty: every fitting gone, every scrap of character eradicated. You see the room – damp and peeling – as it really is: ugly, unloved real estate. Not a home, but a shell. Celebrating, Lopakhin offers champagne – not in the saucers this time, but polystyrene cups. “It’s not real champagne,” gags Yasha. “They charged me forty roubles,” comes the reply. Everything has been hollowed out. Everything’s cheaper, and yet, somehow, more expensive.

Who has the answers? Trofimov, usually; the eternal student spouting revolutionary ideas, pre-empting the Bolsheviks, but failing to get round to actually doing anything about them. It’s often assumed that Trofimov represents Chekhov’s ideas – so much so that, according to Graham Greene, the legendary American director Tyrone Guthrie had him made up like the playwright. Mitchell follows suit: with a lank flop of hair and a thick Northern accent, Paul Hilton looks and sounds the spit of Simon Stephens.

There’s a criticism in that too: an implication that idealism is all well and good, but solves nothing concrete. Hilton’s Trofimov is a hopeless clown, staggering this way and that in search of his boots. He’s a little bit bitter, and awfully superior, and for all his ideas, he’s no kind of leader. His rejection of Anya is no less cruel and no less cowardly than Lopakhin’s of Varya. She leans in and, when he darts out of reach, stumbles.

And so we come to Charlotte Ivanovna, Anya’s governess. So often, she’s forgettable; a presence on the edges of the play, interjecting to entertain the kids with a magic trick or two. Here, played by Sarah Malin, she becomes far more central. Mitchell has her march naked through a scene. There’s no ignoring her after that.

Malin’s Charlotte is a shapeshifter, of sorts; a trickster figure. Every time she enters, she’s differently costumed: here hunting greens with a shotgun; there naked, post-swim; again, in androgynous evening dress, with tricks up her sleeve. No one else changes much: suit to DJ for Lopakhin, one dress for another, Lyubov. Charlotte lives moment-by-moment, utterly present. She’s uninhibited – here, chomping on a cucumber – and impulsive. “I don’t even know how old I am,” she says. Finally, as the Ranevskys get set to go, she strides on dressed in a thick stripy scarf and a felt black hat. Forget Downton Abbey, here’s Doctor Who. How best to deal with change? It’s simple. Regenerate.

Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

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