You wait ages for one Chekhov and two arrive in less than a week. I was disappointed by Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre, which made the anticipation of The Cherry Orchard a tense affair: I don’t like not liking Chekhov. It’s almost hurtful. It doesn’t make sense. The meaning of life comes into question. Fortunately, the Young Vic Cherry Orchard – spiky, unsentimental, insolent, respectful only of a ridiculous tender heart – comes to restore the world as it should be.
The production, directed by Katie Mitchell in a new version by Simon Stephens, crackles with elegant and thrilling contradictions: outwardly it looks traditional, with its straight-laced proscenium arch and naturalistic approach. Yet it creates a feeling of uneasiness, a punky wave of a new world. The modern setting (invoked mostly due to costumes) is established with huge confidence: suits and ties don’t demand the presence of smartphones and Ipads, letters are still sent and news (good news, bad news, terrible news) is still being delivered by messenger. The characters break out into behaviours Chekhov would have never dreamed of which only highlights their inability to break free: their behaviour is often unhinged but that gives them no insight or self-awareness. It’s an act of decompression, like a balloon losing air and spinning out of control, only to end up on the floor, shriveled and defeated.
Through it all, the production shows everyone on a harsh merciless light (figuratively speaking, it’s Katie Mitchell after all – how long did I wait to make that joke?). It doesn’t cajole or flatter, still it does regard with tenderness and most of all dignity. After all, being ridiculous and blinkered to one’s own self-destruction is infinitely human. Every character has its own insular parallel life: vivid action takes place off stage and lives criss-cross the way characters cross the stage, unconcerned about the main drama, concerned only about their own private preoccupations. Simon Stephens uses bold, often unexpected, language (it’s not disrespectful to say his greatest contribution to the text might be the word “splash”). Yet he gives everyone their own personal eloquent words to express their confusion: the characters use language exquisitely to say the wrong thing and hear nothing of each other.
The cast does my favourite thing in the world, where they are individually great and even better with each other: Kate Duchene’s Lyubov Ranevskaya is a woman who has lost all layers of defenses and slides from elation to despair with no friction or breaks. Her first meeting with Peter is all bloody wretched pain. Angus Wright as her brother Gaev has the gnawing anguish of insignificance and of someone who might be losing his mind. Dominic Rowan’s Alexander is passionate about his pragmatism and incandescent with frustration that others can’t see what he sees. Rowan plays beautifully the moment of unsettling ambiguity when he gets what he should want but doesn’t want at all. Natalie Klamar plays Varya’s diligence as a single point of focus that keeps her emotions under control. When she loses her footing, her passions spill out uncontrollably.
Paul Hilton as Trofimov suggests a pained defeated rage, despite eloquence and a convincing kind of confidence: he knows everything there is to know, but he suspects it’s no use to anyone. Tom Mothersdale – who looks like a young Simon McBurney – plays Yasha for the absolute shit that he is. His Yasha is so unrepentant in selfish thoughtlessness – he earns a full-on gasp by the audience at one moment – that you almost admire him. Almost. Hugh Skinner’s Yepihodov – funny, heartbreaking and suicidal on a single breath – ties you up in a kind of guilty – and uncontrolled – merriment. The only person with ice cool demeanour and a clear head is Sarah Malin’s Charlotte: she gets at least two jaw-dropping moments and plays Charlotte’s dispassionate attitude to mesmerising perfection.
The set – designed by Vicki Mortimer – is spacious with big surfaces but sharp attention to detail: the drawings of the little boy, the dinky bric-a-brac of the old house. It reminded me of summer vacations and visiting relatives in the country as a child, big rooms with few furnitures, iron beds scraping on wooden floor. I already made a joke about the lighting (designed by James Farncombe) but it truly deserves high praise: twilight tones are gutted out by the light off doors and windows. It creates a geometrical puzzle of lighting pools, entirely naturalistic, still with its own aesthetic beauty.
The action always plays at an angle, with characters sliding in and out of place. From the vantage view of an audience, you see how they would all fit together but they never do. The new world roars closer and closer until it overtakes them and still, they are hardly the wiser. Maybe an audience somewhere looks at our lives and thinks the same thing.
The Hamlet Challenge: Twice characters refer to Varya as Ophelia and quote “Get thee to a nunnery” from Hamlet. In Alexander’s mouth it’s an inappropriate hurtful attempt to make a joke of a pressure he can’t comprehend, in Peter’s mouth it’s a thoughtless remark, cruel in its casualness.