The Cherry Orchard, Donmar Warehouse, 2024
Photo: Johan Persson
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Donmar Warehouse, Seven Dials
  • Recommended

Review

The Cherry Orchard

5 out of 5 stars

Twelve years after his landmark ‘Three Sisters’, Benedict Andrews hits Chekhov gold again with this endlessly imaginative, boundlessly yearning revival

Andrzej Lukowski
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Time Out says

Aussie director Benedict Andrews’s UK reputation is heavily based on his extraordinary 2012 production of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’, which turned the melancholy masterpiece into a wild fin de siècle romp set on a huge black slag heap, in which the titular siblings memorably danced to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ while howling their boredom. It only ran for a couple of months at the Young Vic, didn’t transfer, didn’t feature any celebrity names (bar a pre-fame Vanessa Kirby), and while Andrews’s subsequent UK work has been very respectable, ‘Three Sisters’ towers over it. 

Returning to Chekhov feels, if not risky, then perhaps at risk of disturbing a perfect memory by going back for more. But no – Andrews has done it again with another all-time take. Clearly there is something about Chekhov’s large ensembles, bittersweet humour and tales of fading aristocrats that draw out the best in him.

There’s no slag heap this time, but designer Magda Willa has created something equally memorable. In an in-the-round configuration in which cast members sit amongst the audience when not performing, every inch of floor and the entire back hall is covered in geometrically patterned rugs, a mix of ‘70s palette and ‘80s design that feels curiously out of time. That’s something continued by Merle Hensel’s remarkable costumes, a hallucinatory blend of shell suits and hippy garb that brings to mind Wes Anderson if he’d smoked something wacky.

It’s an extraordinary visual effect, drolly funny in how colossally unfashionable everyone looks, but also deftly evocative of multiple specific eras while not looking like any world that ever actually existed. Andrews’s funny, sweary textual adaptation of Chekhov’s tale of an extended family of skint aristocrats feels like a similar mix of the timeless and specific. When grumpy, put-upon elderly servant Firs (the unstoppable June Watson, who turns 90 next year) talks about how she preferred the old times, it feels clear that she’s talking about both serfdom and the USSR. 

The time period feels like a deliberately vague mishmash of the last 50 years. And the simmering underlying conflict between Nina Hoss and Michael Gould’s impractical aristocratic siblings Liubov and Leonid and Adeel Akhtar’s kulak-dun-good Yermolai serves as an encapsulation of all sorts of fundamental tensions in our society: liberalism and capitalism; nimbys and yimbys; quality of life versus economic growth; complacent boomers and hungrier younger generations.

Hoss and Akhtar are perfect leads, two complicated sides of the same coin

It’s a smart interpretation of the play’s wider themes, with a yearning undercurrent. Nobody here wishes anybody else harm: these are people who have known each other their whole lives. If any of them could change their ways, or compromise, or simply stop being so bloody impractical all the time then they could all live happily together. But they cannot do that. Even Aktar’s practical Yermolai – who tries to steer Liubov and Leonid towards a path that will let them to keep their home at the expense of selling off their beloved orchard – is paralysed when it comes to articulating his feelings towards Liubov and her daughter Varya (Marli Siu), feelings that might have kept everyone together if expressed.

What Andrews is just plain astonishing at is character and casting. Did Chekhov himself love his inventions as much as Andrews does? In Andrews’s adaptation each of the 12 principle characters feels faithful but fresh, from the desperately vulnerable Liubov to nervy, squeaky-shoed bookkeeper Seymon (Éanna Hardwicke). And truly, what a cast: Hoss and Akhtar are perfect leads, two complicated sides of the same coin. But everyone is spot on: from Gould as the desperately out of touch Leonid to Daniel Monks’s painfully intense Marxist tutor Pyotr and Nathan Armarkwei Laryea’s scene-stealing turn as Yasha’s preeningly obnoxious, Ali G lookalike assistant Yasha (who nonetheless sings a spine-tingling version of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s ‘I See A Darkness’). It’s a wonder to spend time with these people. 

It builds to a queasily brilliant climax, but it’s the journey that’s the joy. The second half begins with the musicians moving onto the stage and the entire company slow dancing while Sarah Amankwah’s clown-like governess Charlotta runs about with a dry ice machine. For a minute it looks totally absurd; then beautiful; finally you wish it would last forever.

Details

Address
Donmar Warehouse
41
Earlham Street
Seven Dials
London
WC2H 9LX
Transport:
Tube: Covent Garden/Leicester Square
Price:
£15-£55. Runs 2hr 45min

Dates and times

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