There's always a tender ache to Chekhov's plays, but the shadows cast by Katie Mitchell's beautiful new production of The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic are literal as we as figurative.
Played in the naturalistic gloom of James Farncombe's lighting plot, it's not always easy to make everyone out. This is one of Mitchell's trademarks as a director; she forces you to look harder and really concentrate. But it always repays the attention. There's a fierce concentration to the performances, too, of her superb ensemble cast, and it brings a paradoxical clarity of emotion and intention in the midst of the darkness.
More recently, we've come to know Mitchell for her bold attempts to re-imagine the cinematic possibilities of theatre, as we made to watch her productions on video screens as the actors created sound and visual effects on the stage in front of us. For me, it's a technique that, however fascinating, has long outstayed its welcome, so it's doubly refreshing to see her return to her previous form as a minutely detailed director of text and performance alone.
The production also marks the Young Vic's ongoing achievement of reanimating modern classics, from A Doll's House (that subsequently transferred to the West End), Miller's A View from the Bridge and most recently Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, with a fierce intensity that makes you see the plays completely afresh.
Simon Stephens's new version of the play is brisk (it delivers the four act drama in under 2 hours playing time), immediate and modern, and superbly played by a cast led by Kate Duchene, a Mitchell regular, as Ranevskaya, who has to face the inevitable sell-off of the estate which carries the burden of so much family history, including the drowning of her young son.
The company, which also includes performances of quiet desperation from Angus Wright as her brother Leonid Gaev, Dominic Rowan as Lopakhin and Paul Hilton as Trofimov, bring tender heartbreak and heartache to every moment. But there's also a lot of humane humour, too.
Played in a reconfigured Young Vic that has been turned into a conventional proscenium arch theatre, Vicki Mortimer's design offers a gorgeous, painterly vista of the interior of Ranevskaya's doomed old house.
"I felt I was watching a commentary on Chekhov rather than a great tragicomedy about a group of purblind egoists unaware their world is on the brink of profound upheaval."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The naturalism becomes so studied as to risk looking artificial, the lack of ostentation tips into its opposite, something showy. There’s a lot of bustle, little that moves you. The actors look out at us as if we were the orchard itself; neat, but very much a conceit."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph