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Review: The Cherry Orchard (Donmar Warehouse)

Review by Sam Waite




Upon seeing the premiere production of what would be his final play, 1904’s The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov was dismayed at Konstantin Stanislavski’s vision, declaring the piece ruined by the director. One of the best-known tragedies of the 20th century, The Cherry Orchard was written as a comedy, poking fun at the changes in power and wealth which created such hardships for its central family. In this new version, written and directed by Benedict Andrews at the Donmar Warehouse, the almost-farcical elements make a welcome return, without dampening the pain of its lead lady.


Fetched back from Paris after an attempt on her own life, Madame Ranevskaya returns to her family estate in Russia and is faced with a harsh truth – societal upheaval, and her own reckless spending, have left her family heavily indebted, and the estate will be put up for auction before long. Lopakhin, looked down on by the family for his lower social class but now vastly wealthier than them, tries in vain to offer a solution in which part of the estate be sublet – the titular orchard, beautiful and sizeable but never utilised for profit, would need to be cut down, a line Ranevskaya refuses to cross. As the rest of the household become increasingly aware of their newfound poverty, Ranevskaya finds herself mourning for the child whose death caused her to flee to Paris, and remains unable to tighten her grip on what money she is loaned.

Andrews’ production has a fascinating relationship with its fourth wall (and its first, second and third, being performed in the round). Magda Willi’s set consists of a large, slightly gaudy carpet – the kind many wealthier families would have kept as part of their centuries-old estates – which covers the stage and continues up the walls on all sides. Accompanied by the house lights staying up, the audience become part of the furniture, quite literally in the case of two audience members, one of whom is brought on stage to be admired as a majestic old bookcase. Actors remain in character while passing behind the stalls seating, and sit among the front row patrons when not on stage, rendering the audience simply part of the grand old furnishings. Questions are asked aloud to the audience, but no response comes or seems to be expected – we aren’t really there, just a metaphor for how less-than this family has spent their lives viewing others as, and how unlikely it is anyone would want to help them now the tables have turned.


Admittedly, there's no new subtleties brought to this new adaptation. Elderly servant Firs is so often talked about in terms of death – can die now, will die soon, should die already – that the idea of this passing ceases to be troubling. Oft-referenced to is orchard itself, so much so that the word “orchard” and phrase “cherry orchard” might make for a lethal drinking game. But with no minutiae discussed, no specifics beyond whiteness of bloom and enormity of its scale, a sense of abstraction grows, and it becomes harder to visualise the cherry orchard, and much more so to understand any emotional connection to something only admitted in such broad terms. Perhaps that's the point entirely, the inhabitants of this stately home so blind the the details of life that they can only enjoy something for grandeur and spectacle.

Nina Hoss is magnificent as Madame Ranevskaya, eminently likeable and perfectly delicate. So tender and visibly-felt are her emotions that the eye roll when she gives a beggar her last hundred rubles is accompanied by understanding – she doesn’t want to keep throwing away money while the household can barely feed themselves, but Hoss makes it so easy to believe that she simply cannot help herself. Creating this sense of generosity to her actions, the inevitable tragedy of her losing the orchard becomes all the more impactful. Her foil, in terms of social reversals, is Adeel Akhtar’s everyman Lopakhin. Gruff, blunt, but genuinely caring for her, his efforts to keep her from total ruin feel so heartfelt and so unnecessarily kind that an eventual twist feels all the more gutting, and all the more earned through his decades of friendship going unappreciated as a result of social biases.


The cast as a whole are strong, with the elderly Firs, struggling to adapt to the idea of newfound freedom, played by a fabulously stern June Watson, and the Madame’s teenage daughter Anya played with a delicate ease by Sadie Soverall. From his skilled troupe, Andrews has drawn modern-leaning, sometimes broad performances – Éanna Hardwicke’s “walking disaster” Semyon is a great source of physical comedy, while Nathan Armarkwei Laryea’s Yasha wouldn’t be out of place lounging around the Saltburn estate. Andrews’ text keeps the plot of the original intact, but his language is more contemporary, his setting more vague (city and town names are mentioned, but there’s little else tying this to Russia as we’ve ever known it) while the single unfurnished set suggests that his version of Ranevskaya’s household view even the places seen outside the house as merely more of what is theirs.

The understanding of these characters, particularly their egregious shortcomings, is perhaps Andrews’ greatest strength in staging The Cherry Orchard. Eternal student Pyotr (a commanding, combative Daniel Monks) monologues on important subjects, but wraps them up in such cringe-inducing #SocialJusticeWarrior packages that it becomes easy to dismiss him until it's too late to absorb any valid point made. Furthermore, Andrews plays into the others ignoring Pyotr’s monologues, at one point having them play a game during their picnic while his increasingly frantic pleas go ever more unheard. With a good chunk of act two set at a lavish but ill-advised party, the overwhelming nature of onstage instruments and crowding such a small stage play their part too, in creating a world in which Madame Ranevskaya in particular has blinded and deafened herself to their hardships – while her adopted daughter-cum-house manger attempts to control others, the lady of the house offends old friends with her carelessness and distracts herself with new dance partners.


A bold, genuinely thrilling moment involves the dismantling of Willi’s design. The Donmar suddenly a desolate black-box space, and the grand carpeting bundled on the stage, we see how deeply these people’s problems run. Andrews still has Ranevskaya look fondly at her home as if it weren’t in literal tatters, and Yasha immediately finds a place among the bundled rags to continue his entitled lazing. Along with Dan Balfour’s sound design, which finds a stark, uncomfortable silence informing just how large a home we are guests in, Andrews’ vision is a bold and sometimes breath-taking one.

I've spoken about this production briefly with only two people – one, seemingly more familiar with previous productions, seemed dismayed at the tonal changes compared to classical interpretations, while the other called it one of a small number of Chekhov productions they've enjoyed. Certainly a small sample, not nearly scientific in scope, this still feels like evidence of what I suspected while watching The Cherry Orchard – Benedict Andrew's' new adaptation will prove divisive, particularly among those familiar with and fond of Chekhov’s work. Ambitious in its vision and aggressive in its newness, the fruits of Andrews’ Orchard may not suit every taste, but ought to impress with their unique flavour.


The Cherry Orchard plays at The Donmar Warehouse until June 22nd



Photos by Johan Persson



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