Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar's new production runs until June 22

By: May. 03, 2024
Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Donmar Warehouse
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Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Donmar Warehouse Why do we love Chekhov? Is it because the characters in his plays are always a glass of wine away from an existential breakdown? Are we vicariously catharising our own pathetic little miseries? Or just relieved not to be so pathetic. Either way you’ll be hard pressed to find any answers in Benedict Andrews’s overly eager production of The Cherry Orchard.

In fairness Chekhov’s final play is the Russian playwright at his most symbolically unwieldy. On her uppers aristocrat Lyuba Ranevsky returns heartbroken from Paris to her family’s rural estate, now managed by financially on the up Ermolai, a former serf. Auctioning off the cherry orchard into lots for holiday homes is the only way of paying off her mounting debts.

Sentimental nostalgia is the first victim of the paradigm shift rippling through Russia: the play is a long and thinly veiled metaphor for the dissolution of aristocracy and the emergence of a newly minted class of landowners under capitalism.

But here lies the cynical beauty: Ermolai’s financial ascent and his former mistress’s psychological unravelling are not a fist-pumping triumph of a working class hero over an exploiting aristos. Instead nihilism rings loud and hollow. The new freedom they enjoy and must suffer enslaves them to money. There’s no good and bad in a world governed by roubles and copecks.

One hand tucked cooly in his pocket, the other pontificating with each spark of his financial savvy, Adeel Akhtar’s earnestly pragmatic Ermolai captures this gorgeously. He is excitable, face buzzing with a schoolboy smirk, but eyes cooly calculating gently threatening Nina Hoss’s Lyuba. She retreats, cat like, into the corner arms folded, fragmenting from within. Their icy standoffs and spiky sexual tension are easily the beating heart here.

Review: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Donmar Warehouse

It’s a shame there’s no string to tie the rest of the production together. Andrews’ direction tries almost cloyingly hard to conjure elusive continental chic, to the point where I wonder if it is self-reflexive parody.

There’s no set forcing the cast to awkwardly loiter and shuffle between each other and over the Aztec prints zigzagging across the stage and backwall. I suppose it’s a nod to agrarian culture, but it leaves the production incoherent and cold, a room of solipsists languorously lounging in a 1970s burnt orange purgatory.

When not in a scene they perch amongst the audience and not so much break the fourth wall, put coquettishly prod it by inviting members onto the stage for various bits. The second act begins with an onstage band, a natural addition if you’re a radical auteur wanting to reinvent a canonical play. There’s also vaping and a shoutout to philosophy Slavoj Zizek. Naturally.  

To Andrews’ credit there are moments of symbolic clarity, but they hit such sledgehammer clunk that you can see them from miles away. There’s heart underneath the ornamentation, but it’s buried irritatingly deep. At best it’s a bit pretentious, at worst it’s a meandering waste of a thoroughly brilliant cast.

The Cherry Orchard plays at The Donmar Warehouse until June 22

 Photo Credits: Johan Persson


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