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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Cherry Orchard

"They're doing my head in!" — Yasha
The Cherry Orchard
Paul Hilton as Peter Trofimov (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
This much loved, oft derided, classic by the Russian Playwright Anton Chekhov concerns a family reunion at a country house in 1904. The once noble family and their plethora of servants and hangers on are in financial disarray and the estate, including the orchard of the title must be sold. There's little more to the plot than finding out who's bought it but we celebrate the playwright's microscopically detailed evocation of character, mood and motivation in the busy household, inhabited by a class who must adapt or perish. A few years later it will all be blown away by the communist uprising.

The Cherry Orchard is revived all the time but that doesn't matter as each director and cast put their own stamp on it and some people collect experiencing productions of it in the way that others collect notable Hamlets.

The director on this occasion, Katie Mitchell, must be a very lovely woman indeed because once an Artistic Director invites her to direct she gets invited back and back, despite being one of the most divisive figures in UK theatre. I know at least two critics and many members of the public who'd rather chew broken glass then sit through another of her austere, interval-less, productions whilst others... well, I don't actually know anyone who actively enjoys her uncompromising style, although actually I don't mind it. Fortify yourself with a double espresso, settle yourself in for the long haul and she can be revelatory.

The trouble with, or glory of, her directing style is it makes no compromises to the audience. Here, as in her celebrated/reviled revival of another Chekhov's play, The Seagull at the National Theatre, the lighting designer is only permitted to use light sources that would realistically be in the room and the actors are allowed, indeed encouraged, to stand and mumble where their mood takes them. Infuriatingly this can be with their back towards us or where they mask other characters and key moments from sight. Such is the case here and I imagine if you don't know the play intimately you'll struggle to identify which dimly lit figure in black is which.

The success of individual performances depends on to what extent they ignore Mitchell's instructions to ignore us. So Angus Wright makes a strong impression as the tedious landowner because he's a seasoned pro and just can't help letting us in on his performance. However the whole audience wanted to strangle the guy playing an idiotic neighbour for standing in front of Kate Duchene as the mistress of the house through much of the first act, when it would have been great to see her reactions to the family's failing fortunes.

At other times it didn't help that, from where I was sitting, Kate Duchene was so busy moving herself to tears that she failed to make much of an impression in one of the great female roles of all time. You can usually pick out Dominic Rowan through the gloom as a local entrepreneur because he looks like David Cameron but everyone else merges into one.

I loved Simon Stephen's colloquial, streamlined adaptation and the evocative, battered old house, set by Vikki Mortimer. I'm not sure we needed Paul Clark's rumbling, horror film score to help us feel melancholy but playing the piece in modern dress, reflecting the contrast between old-school and capitalist contemporary Russia, works a treat.

In many ways the pragmatism of the younger generation, interchangeable though they look on this occasion, makes them the most interesting characters in this scenario. I could just make out that the vicious young man-servant, Yasha was wearing a gold chain with his suit, "gangsta" style. Nice touch.

I was also rather struck by the poster which depicts a drowning child. At first it bewildered me but then I remembered that the family had lost a little boy some ten years before. How could his shadow not haunt every moment in the old nursery? Yet I've never seen a production that evoked that haunting as keenly as this one. Full marks for that. I was rather hoping Mitchell would have him appear.

She doesn't but all her other trade mark gimmicks are in place including the extraordinarily arrogant belief that the spell she casts is so powerful that an interval would spoil it. Luckily this isn't as long as some of her other productions of early twentieth century naturalism have been.

A very collectable production for The Cherry Orchard/i> and Katie Mitchell aficionados but I suspect it'll be a bewildering evening if you're encountering the play or director for the first time.

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The Cherry Orchard
Written by AntonChekhov
Directed by Katie Mitchell

Starring: Kate Duchene, Dominic Rowan, Angus Wright, Paul Hilton, Hugh Skinner
With: Gawn Grainger, Sarah Malin, Tom Mothersdale, Sarah Ridgeway, Catrin Stewart
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Costumes: Sussie Juhlin-Wallen
Lighting: James Farncombe
Sound: Gareth Fry
Music: Paul Clark
Movement: Joseph Alford
Running time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 29th November 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th October 2014 performance at The Young Vic , 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ(RaIL/Tube: Waterloo, Southwark)
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