The developer rubs his hands as the ‘old money’ get blown out of the tatty manor house like cobwebs, and as JCBs creep and chainsaws rev, the very trees in the orchard groan confusion over what happened to that better world they knew. This is not a cash-strapped aristocrat’s nightmare about the capabilities of the mansion tax, but Anton Chekhov’s sensitive evocation of a family learning that a home is not its castle when it comes to enduring social upheaval.
Whoever and wherever you are, if you've either been alienated by change or emotionally brutalised by having to move home, this one's for you.
Penned on the brink of the Russian Revolution, The Cherry Orchard concerns the debts of Lyubov Ranevskaya (Kate Duchêne), a matriarch returning to the ancestral home and the histrionics of family, staff and the many satellite personalities therein. Paralysed by nostalgia for the decaying estate, she ignores the financial advice of serf-turned-businessman Alexander (Dominic Rowan), to build lucrative holiday cottages on her land. Not in my back cherry orchard! But she is equally oblivious to the cautions of Leftie scholar Peter (Paul Hilton) about how destructive obsession with money has become. Instead she stacks debt upon debt as the country pile slips from her grasp.
Simon Stephens wrote this English language version. Striving for an ‘honest refraction’ rather than over-literal transfiguration of Chekhov’s deeply contextual play, his unique sales pitch is that this labour of love is a very well-mitigated failure. The play is really that pessimistic about progress; Stephens’s words are the sort of line that might be uttered by Simeon — the household’s affected manservant who carries a gun in case he should suddenly need to kill himself. He’s played by Hugh Skinner with an earnestness instantly recognisable from his role as the well-intentioned but hopeless intern in the BBC sitcom W1A.
Chekhov did originally intend this, his final work, as a comedy — and Stephens and internationally-treasured director Katie Mitchell have pruned back 110 years of dramatic interpretation to scope out that original vision. ‘Why is everyone so serious all the time?’ yells Peter, when for the umpteenth time someone makes a sentimental grumble about how things ain’t what they used to be.
But if we have so far led you to believe this Young Vic production is amusing more than it is very draining and (necessarily) rather terrifying at times, let us now set the record straight. Having just turned 50, Mitchell evidently relished the personal challenge of tackling a play which insinuates damaging significance within every last reference to the passing of time and age.
There’s a particularly sinister sub-plot involving the aged servant Firs (Gawn Grainger) and his bolshy junior Yasha; the latter embodying everything dangerous about the Revolution. Firs reckons he has survived on the fumes of wood polish for 30 years. Malevolent Yasha knows that as part of the furniture, traditional Firs will crumble with the house; that nothing transcends mortality, neither bricks and mortar nor 'stupid old people'.
Change: who needs it? The anxieties and dramas of this crowd are complex contrivances, but the estate itself stands more tangibly for all of them as a dying character in its own right. Bare rooms stripped of objects and life; characters toasting the birthdays of wooden cabinets; the roar of distant chainsaws in the orchard — sometimes these are the most heartbreaking dramas of this necessarily attritional and poignant play.
The Cherry Orchard runs until 29 November 2014 at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ. Tickets £10-£35. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.