Well, sort of a review anyway…
Straight out – I loved Katie Mitchell’s production of The Cherry Orchard in the new version by Simon Stephens at the Young Vic. That being said, it’s a classic I haven’t seen before so I can’t come at with the bite of experience and comparisons. However, I did take along a Russian friend. And I think her experience of the play is worth relaying. We will call her M.
It was a last minute, impromptu decision after a morning of lectures to invite M along to the Young Vic. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that Chekhov was Russian and so is M. Even if the fact had clicked, I don’t suppose I would have thought much of it. How wrong I would have been.
To give a little context, Mitchell’s production plays out with naturalist sincerity the terror of a falling aristocratic family. What she did brilliantly was to maintain distance and reserve judgement. Madame Ranevskaya was neither too silly nor too sympathetic in refusing to act to save her estate, stunned like a rabbit in the headlights if it meant destroying her beloved cherry orchard. Lopakhin, an astute businessman descended from serfs, was opportunist but not unkind.
Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph says the “naturalism becomes so studied as to risk looking artificial” – actors’ backs turned to the audience with almost too much decided deference; clattering pans and offstage music a little too devised. I tend to agree but the heartbreaking conclusion still for me had beautiful emotional resonance. Firs was kindly, elderly, tentative – his abandonment awful.
For M, it was so much more than that. She had tears as I approached her after and wasn’t able to leave the auditorium until we were ushered out a good while after the curtain went down by the stewards. The conversation carried on two cups of coffee later. For her this was her country on stage – the Russian condition expertly considered and the tensions that remain perhaps occluded in everyday life revealed in dramatic tension. She called it the most profoundly Russian play there is. She also said the experience was heightened seeing it for the first time in English, in England.
She has a fraught relationship with her homeland, is desperately sad that Putin has so much national support and bewildered by the elder generation’s nostalgia for the community spirit of the Stalinist era, blind sighted to the atrocities. This is all so much so that she doesn’t know if she can go back. She believes she won’t be able to have the artistic career she longs for back home.
Particularly, she noted the emotional tug of family land and the history of serfdom; the contrast between the petrified immobility of the nobility and the active and mobile agility of the former serf. She adored that the play doesn’t come down on either side – that it leaves more questions than it answers – but that tragicomedy eventually ends in utterly innocent tragedy leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth.
I’m touched to have experienced her experience with her. There are some plays that can do that. It reminded me how completely it depends on your individual biography how you react to a play – it seems obvious to say it – but it’s important because then how can we say which plays are really valuable? Which demand professional approval from the critics? I think this is what the bloggers can do. They can encounter with personal sincerity, admit their own hangups and passions, and express themselves without a veil of objectivity, however thin the veil of the critics might be.
For those interested, Simon Stephens has written an insightful piece into the spirited and lofty process of translating The Cherry Orchard here for the Guardian.