'The Cherry Orchard' review – this electrifying staging grabs Chekhov's play by the scruff of the neck

Read our review of The Cherry Orchard, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews, now in performances at the Donmar Warehouse to 22 June.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The house lights never dim in Benedict Andrews’s electrifying staging of The Cherry Orchard, which takes Chekhov’s final play by the scruff of the neck – much to the astonishment of an enraptured audience.

Sure, purists may be (and have been) bemused by the sweary tendencies of this particular Russian assemblage, who are equally likely to invoke climate change and social justice warriors as they are to wax lyrical about their beloved homestead.

That, of course, includes the ill-fated orchard of the title, to which they will say goodbye forever in the final scene – all, that is, except for the wonderful June Watson’s forgotten Firs, who herself isn’t above deriding Nathan Armarkwei Laryea’s belligerently cruel Yasha as “a fuckwit”.

We hear machinery felling the orchard to the ground near the production’s close, and Andrews’s fiery adaptation of this ever-tricky play is nothing if not blunt.

Aware of his familial background as “peasant scum”, Adeel Akhtar’s bruising Lopakin purchases the orchard with a mixture of triumph and fury that left me catching my breath, and when a radiant Nina Hoss’s Ranevskaya asks her eldest daughter, Varya (Marli Siu, wonderful), “Why are you so angry?”, she might as well be posing that question of everyone in her midst.

Of Chekhov’s four great plays, this is often the least satisfying, at least in my view, and too many productions approach it analytically but without much feeling – but not here. Returning to this author for the first time in London since his Young Vic Three Sisters 12 years ago, Andrews’s hold over this writer’s emotionally elusive terrain is even more exacting now than it was then.

Right from the start, for instance, you sense an erotic pull between Lopakhin and Ranevskaya, notwithstanding her brother Gaev’s dismissal of this moneyed upstart as “a cunt”. A febrile Ranevskaya, in turn, may mourn the dead whom she envisages walking amongst the living, but is quick to offer a fond embrace to the very same fervent young tutor, Trofimov (Daniel Monks), whose glasses she soon after insults.

Yasha isn’t sure whether to drink coffee or commit suicide – two choices of presumably unequal weight – whilst Gaev looks on himself as a “a worthless sack of shit”. The remorseless of these people is startling, as is their candour, often at the expense of themselves. At least two of the characters have a habit of falling to the stage floor, and Sarah Amankwah’s conjurer-governess, Charlotta, makes much of cradling a pretend baby which then gets dashed to the ground.

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But one also clocks waves of affection that give the production a real ache. The Hamlet-quoting Lopakhin, Ranevskaya decides, renders life “less terrible”, and Varya and Sadie Soverall’s sensationally fresh-faced Anya really do seem like the forever-fond sisters that they are.

The visible engagement throughout with the audience allows for direct contact, whether Gaev is singling out a (very game) man in the front row whom he exalts as his beloved bookcase, or the cast, at the start of Act Two, is inviting spectators on stage for a dance.

Hoss, a memorable presence onscreen in Tar, is in blinding form as a particularly beautiful Ranevskaya who nonetheless seems more than once on the verge of losing her mind. And the exquisite Monks builds on his experience as Konstantin a few years ago in the Jamie Lloyd-directed Seagull to play a young braniac whose politics don’t always keep pace with his passions.

Merle Hensel’s colourful, sometimes-gaudy costumes are as deliberately jarring as the language, and Magda Willi’s set – the patterned carpet snaking up the back wall – feels as if it has acquired a physical life all its own by the time it gets torn up for the play’s tempestuous farewells.

Is this The Cherry Orchard of your grandparents’ imaginings? Obviously not. But those willing to go along for the ride will emerge duly transported. “I’m completely drained,” Firs remarks late in the production. She’s not the only one.

The Cherry Orchard is at the Donmar Warehouse through 22 June.

Photo credit: The Cherry Orchard (Photos by Johan Persson)

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