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November 06, 2014
Sometimes, in nature, it's not the fittest animals that survive, it's the cruellest, says Peter, eternal student in Simon Stephens' version of Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard. This production successfully underscores the brutality running through human behaviour by highlighting individual moments of sadism, thus reminding of Stephens' climate change play Wastwater.
Early on in this version of the play Alexander describes a brutal beating at the hands of his drunken father, establishing abuse as an important leitmotif. As the play progresses Firs becomes increasingly fearful of the menacing bully Yasha, and the detail of the walking stick kicked from under him and the doctor's letter not sent after him to the hospital but torn up before our eyes leaves no-one in the audience in any doubt that Yasha intended him to die, imprisoned in the freezing old house at the end. As the family and its entourage chaotically moves on from the old way of life to the new, it is horribly clear that if everyone had not been so self-absorbed, someone might have noticed Firs' predicament. Yasha committed the crime, but everyone in the family was implicated in the act of murder.
The destruction of the cherry orchard is, in a similar vein, set in motion on the basis of an unwitting collaboration. Son of serf standing on the shoulders of former serf owners is helped by Adam Smith's invisible hand - the market in holiday homes supplanting the market for cherry preserves - as well as by the actions of others. Not unlike Yasha, Alexander did the deed, but Lyubov's self-indulgent passive reactivity accelerated the cross-generational series of actions leading inexorably towards environmental destruction. The question is, who is now the fittest to survive, Alexander, seemingly winning but still trapped in the system, or Anya and Peter, seeking to escape.
A play depicting orchestrated environmental and human wreckage is well served by an ensemble cast, and there was a strong team of actors at work here. Yasha (Tom Mothersdale) was satisfyingly unpleasant; Lyubov (Kaye Duchene) was cringingly self-pitying thus (appropriately) hard to pity; and there were some heart-tugging performances from Gawn Grainger, Natalie Klamar and Angus Wright, playing respectively Firs (touchingly keeping Leonid safe), Varya (pining painfully for Alexander) and Leonid (involuntarily propelled into an imaginary game of pool at difficult moments).
Absorbed in watching this comedy of survival, we the audience found we, too, had skin in the game, as the saying goes, thanks to a conventional but nonetheless effective theatrical tactic deployed early on. When Leonid and Lyubov, just back in their old home, were looking nostalgically out at the white cherry orchard under the moonlight, the audience became the trees at risk, proprietorial finger pointing directly at us. Through this trick of imaginary metamorphosis we became entangled, first with the (ominous) future then, later on in the play, with the past - for Peter and Anya, about to embark on a journey of atonement, we represented the voices of the souls of long dead slaves whose sweat and blood built the orchard. Chekhov's play draws out the connection between environmental degradation and slavery in the name of economic progress, then and now. Mitchell's production, incorporating all of us in Chekhov's ecosystem-at-risk, puts us at the core of the damaging nexus of human activity represented in the play.
Weaving the audience into the fabric of an imagined environment seems to be a regular ecotheatre riff. In John Godber's 2007 climate change play Crown Prince, the corner of a bowling green is centre stage and 'When the characters bowl towards the audience they have their eye on an imaginary jack somewhere out towards the centre of the audience.' Metaphorically speaking an unseen (environmental) 'curve ball' is bowled into the audience. So it is with this production of The Cherry Orchard. As the characters in the play say, at different moments: *We could change everything. We just don't. We have so much. We should be giants. We really, really aren't. Life is passing us by. It's as though we've never lived it at all.*
* Text between asterisks is drawn from the published text/theatre programme - see sources.
Creatives: Post Office Clerk - Cavan Clarke; Wanderer - Andy Cresswell; Lyubov Ranevskaya - Kate Duchene; Firs - Gawn Granger; Peter Trofimov - Paul Hilton; Station Master - Peter Hobday; Boris Simeonov- Pishchik - Stephen Kennedy; Varya - Natalie Klamar; Charlotte Ivanova - Sarah Malin; Yasha - Tom Mothersdale; Dunyasha - Sarah Ridgeway; Alexander Lopakhin - Dominic Rowan; Simeon Yepikhodov - Hugh Skinner; Anya - Catrin Stewart; Leonid Gaev - Angus Wright. Direction - Katie Mitchell; Design - Vicki Mortimer.
Sources. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, English Language Version by Simon Stephens (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014). Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, translated by Sharon Marie Carnicke (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2010). John Godber, 'Crown Prince', in Plays: 4 (London: Methuen Drama, 2009). Simon Stephens, 'Wastwater', in Wastwater and T5 (London: Methuen Drama, 2011). Played at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court in March 2011.