If I could give a premise five stars I absolutely would do for Vinay Patel’s rewrite of Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, which transposes the mournful Russian country estate action to a dilapidated, all-Indian crew colony ship, drifting listlessly through space, hundreds of years into its interminable mission. The fact it’s directed by leftfield royalty James Macdonald at the ultra-hip Yard Theatre doesn’t exactly make it sound less enticing.
Crucially, Patel – who has written a couple of acclaimed ‘Doctor Who’ episodes – is entirely in earnest. There are some retrofuturistic lols in the ship’s cheerfully passive-aggressive computer Divya (Chandrika Chevli) and its glitchy old android Feroze (Hari Mackinnon). But Patel absolutely takes the scenario seriously. He carefully builds up a vision of a crumbling world ship divided by class, with the privileged officer class living up top with the ship’s stunning orchard, and the serf-like ‘belowdeckers’ living in a windowless realm below. The immense length of the voyage means the crew were all born onboard – cloned from their forefathers – and now embrace their colonising mission as a sort of religion, devoting their lives to steering the ship to a specific, distant destination that none of them will live to see.
However, their mission is shaken to its core by the freak discovery of another, much nearer habitable world. Some of the crew want to end the mission immediately and start a colony. Others consider it their sacred duty to go to the original destination - although this would seem to be a convenient cover for not wanting to change a way of life that has endured for hundreds of years.
Like I say: great premise. And it’s handily directed by Macdonald, who is always a deft at pulling off slightly weird human interactions (he’s directed a lot of Caryl Churchill). He’s really aided by designer Rosie Elnile: the production photos don’t do justice to the effectiveness of the slow rotating set and its antiquated electronics. Patel’s ideas about a society in which the relationships between cloned real people and longer-lived artificial intelligences have become deeply confused are compelling and original. There are standout turns from Chevli and Mackinnon as the (voice of the) computer and the android, while Anjali Jay is terrific as Captain Prema Ramesh, a fascinating mix of coquettish populist and casually cruel dictator. And having an all-Asian cast – well I think it’s absolutely not intended to make any sort of point about contemporary Indian society, just reclaiming sci-fi tropes: in a passing snatch of dialogue, one character tells another about the existence of ‘Caucasians’, which his colleague thinks is a wind-up.
The trouble is, the basic story never feels as affecting as that of Chekhov’s doomed, out-of-time Russian gentry. I don’t think making ‘The Cherry Orchard’ a sci-fi is the problem per se. But Patel’s scenario didn’t really work for me emotionally just because it seemed blindingly obvious that making planetfall was a far more sensible option for basically everyone than staying on a malfunctioning spaceship until they all died. Chekhov’s original characters were defined by the past tense of their happiness and the feeling they lacked a future. But here Ramesh et al have the prospect of a new start, while the vessel is such a mess that there’s no sense of tragedy in the idea of its mission ending – even the prospect of the ship’s cherry orchard being chopped down feels relatively ‘eh’ when they have an entire planet to explore.
Ultimately the ship’s politics makes a solid allegory for a dysfunctional social system on the brink of cataclysmic but necessary change. But that’s literally what Chekhov wrote his play about. Despite Patel’s thoughtful world-building, this ‘Cherry Orchard’ often struggles to shake off the sense that it’s a clever technical exercise in transposition. If it were an episode of a sci-fi show – and I’m not saying that was ever the intent – it would be a neat way of backdooring a Chevhov plot into it. But we’re actually here to watch a Chekhov play, and the reworked plot often functions as a distancing device.
Of course, I’m a very old man, familiar with the original plat and its social context. If you’ve not seen any Chekhov before but do enjoy dystopian sci-fi then I’d imagine you’ll lap up this crisp, accessible, imaginative drama with some big ideas and memorable characters.
I still liked it a lot. But emotionally speaking, it goes less boldly than Chekhov’s original.