Following on from the soaring, sell-out productions of A View from the Bridge and A Streetcar Named Desire, expectations on the Young Vic’s production of The Cherry Orchard were inevitably high. It’s widely considered one of Chekhov’s masterpieces: a tragedy dressed in the guise of comedy, a farce imbued with sentimentality, here translated in a new version by playwright Simon Stephens. Unfortunately this particular offering of The Cherry Orcharddoes not live up to its promises, ending a successful theatrical season in far from full bloom.
Incidentally, it is itself a play all about endings. The destruction of the orchardgradually becomes a metaphor for the end of an old social order in Russian society. As the Ranevskys romanticise about their childhood memories in thecherry blossoms, they’re lamenting the loss of an established social hierarchy, of a rural world, and of feudal aristocracy. Seemingly oblivious to this impending crisis, the play ends with the family fleeing their derelict estate, and the old serf-turned-manservant babbling incoherently.
The problem is that Katie Mitchell’s production takes all sense of this desolation and finality to such extremes, the play itself becomes bereft of anything new to say. The set is bare, the lighting is dingy, and ominous sounds pierce superficially through the dialogue at random intervals. Instead of conveying the desperate brink on which the orchard (and all it represents) teeters, it comes across as a disengaging attempt at something clever or minimalist.
The cast is a mixed bag. I’m not sure whether Kate Duchene was miscast or misguided in her approach to Lyuba Ranevsky (probably both). She captures a certain impulsiveness, but her inability to fully inhabit the character’s complexity renders her performance unconvincing. Dominic Rowan is good as the quietly ruthless Lopahkin, whose climactic purchase of the orchard represents an emerging class of new money, and his scenes with Varya (Natalie Klamar) hold a fleeting poignancy.
The most engaging scene of the play comes at the very end (this current fashion for running without an interval doesn’t work here: there’s not enough time to warm to a cast who are already slightly awkward). We’re left with the sight of old Firs collapsing frailly as cherry trees are buzzed down outside, locked inside the house and left behind by the family. In a production where the sense of tragedy is too overstated, Gawn Grainger’s understated performance proves that subtlety is often more effectual.
Either there is nothing adventurous about this revival of The Cherry Orchard, or the point of its interpretation is not intelligibly executed. There are some positive glimmers – but overall, it’s too obscure for anyone new to Chekhov, and offers no new insights for those already familiar. For a playwright whose body of work should be accessible and inexhaustible, this production misses opportunities.