Written towards the end of Chekhov’s life and first performed in 1904 at the Moscow Arts Theatre, much has been made of The Cherry Orchard by all sorts of academics, directors, historians, actors, writers, teachers, students and even politicians. The list could go on, as could the roll call of eminent directors, designers and actors who have variously worked on this great play in some way, shape or form. These include Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Sam Mendes, Howard Davies, Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Meryl Streep, Ben Kingsley, Timothy Spall, Diana Rigg, Simon Russell-Beale and now Katie Mitchell and company!
It was the play that Stanislavski and Chekhov famously fell out over. Chekhov believed his play to be a comedy yet Stanislavski insisted on directing it as a tragedy. So which is it? A farcical comedy or a heartbreaking tragedy? The truth is that it’s probably a bit of both and this duality is certainly something that we had to deal with as a company. Interestingly, in the introduction to his version for the National Theatre, David Lan made the assertion that genre had always been very important to European writers and that, “In a ‘tragedy’ the hero achieves self knowledge through suffering. In a ‘comedy’ the heroes suffer but learn nothing.” As the unmistakeable and overwhelming sound of a chainsaw floods the theatre at the end of our production and the proverbial curtain fell, the characters in our Cherry Orchard most certainly had not learnt from their mistakes so perhaps in this way has David Lan well expounded it!
Another question constantly asked is how much of the play is autobiographical? Chekhov spent many summers as a child at a family friend’s cherry orchard before it was cut down through industrialisation whilst he himself planted and owned a cherry orchard outside of Moscow before that in turn was cut down by the Estate’s new owners. As a child, his family home in Taganrog was sold to pay off the mortgage whilst his mother was also cheated of her home by an ex lodger who paid off her debts by buying their house. No doubt all of these isolated incidents had combined together to partially form the seeds of this play but it is often all too easy to attribute the narrative arc of a play to biographical incidents. Whilst the parallels remain clear, perhaps it is less useful to consider the merits of the play as an insight into Chekhov’s personal history and psyche and more interesting to assess Chekhov’s opinions of these characters and why he has told us the story that he has. Invariably, this leads onto further questions, did Chekhov identify with one character more than the others? How did Chekhov really feel about the shifts in Russian society and politics? To these, I leave to you to make your own minds up… part of the joy and challenge of working on The Cherry Orchard has been to decipher meaning and to make sense of this multifaceted play ourselves- we would hate to deprive you of this same journey and puzzle!
As such, what concerned me most, when the Young Vic offered me the opportunity to direct this great play was how we, as a young company, would collectively answer these questions and engage with this famously complex and adult play. It turns out that I need not have worried. The company has been brilliant at approaching this play from day one, questioning and analysing it- and in doing so helping me see the play again for the first time. These young actors have offered a fresh perspective, constantly challenging the established notions and preconceptions of The Cherry Orchard– they have brought themselves to their parts and in that way reshaped the play and provided subtle shifts and nuances so different from other productions.
I like to think that our Anya is so much stronger and the relationship with her mother more complicated and realistic. Our Peter has found a revolutionary zeal that is perhaps less faithful to the fallibility of the original text, but brings a new dynamic through his ethnicity. In his mouth, the words surrounding slavery take on a whole new dimension- especially in that isolated scene with Anya. As for our Firs, well he has taken on a metaphysical and metatextual agenda- increasing the stakes between himself and Ranevskaya as well as connecting with us as an audience. This is perhaps not the most faithful rendition of The Cherry Orchard ever created but in tackling their parts and this play, these young actors have never once being cowed by the reputation of the play, writer or characters within it and as a result, what we have is an entirely unique version of The Cherry Orchard. It has been driven forward by the imagination, personality and conviction of this young company as much as the creatives working alongside them. They have embraced the relationships, found new stories and niches within the text and perhaps most importantly, recognised and directly engaged with the themes and questions surrounding social change. The identity of this production is unquestionably theirs and they have been the beating heart of our reimagining and response to Chekhov’s original. I hope we have succeeded in not only capturing the essence of The Cherry Orchard, but also posed some new questions in our interpretation- to those of you who managed to catch it, we hope you enjoyed it!
The Cherry Orchard Parallel Production was directed by Anthony Lau.