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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Kate Duchene and Paul Hilton/ Ph: Stephen Cummiskey

Katie Mitchell has established a distinctive directorial style – a kind of cool, forensic naturalism – and she regularly divides opinion. Her production of Chekhov’s drama, in a new version by Simon Stephens, qualifies on both counts. Performed over nearly two compressed, interval-free hours, it is immediate, accessible and dark – sometimes to the point of savage cruelty. There’s little humour to illuminate its murky misery, and what there is tends to be sardonic. And in this modern-dress staging, Mitchell and Stephens edge away from a depiction emphasising the decay of an entire social class and towards a broader emphasis on maternal grief, family strife and buccaneering economic ambition. Some may find it a somewhat lopsided reading of the play, but it is nevertheless involving, and there is penetrating work from the strong ensemble of actors.

Vicki Mortimer’s sombre designs present Madame Ranevskaya’s home, the ancestral heart and hearth adjacent to the doomed cherry orchard, as a quietly disintegrating pile, sickly light struggling through heavy shutters, the walls a cheerless, crumbling ochre. As the lady of this mouldering manor, Kate Duchene is a woman trapped in agonising stasis, smothering her pain and guilt over the drowning of her son beneath a bright, forced cheeriness and an unarticulated refusal to face the future. At one point, the mask of manners and long habit slips, and bitterness leaks out – for why should she smile or laugh when, as she acridly points out, “Life’s not funny?"
Her teenage daughter Anya, as played by Catrin Stewart, is a damaged, fragile, febrile creature; it’s hard to imagine a less suitable governess for her than Sarah Malin’s fantastically eccentric Charlotte, with her penchant for extravagant displays of nudity, scorn and sexual aggression. And while Angus Wright’s obsessive Gaev, Ranevskaya’s brother, and her adoptive daughter, Natalie Klamar’s poignant Varya, share hushed anxieties, despite Varya’s weary determination to cling on to the fragments of family life, her efforts are horribly futile. When she submits, towards the play’s desolate conclusion, to be left alone with Dominic Rowan’s pragmatic Lopakhin so that he has a chance to propose to her, it’s with grim resignation. Worse still, it’s in vain – he never gets around to popping the crucial question. 

Rowan’s Lopakhin presents a financial solution – chopping down the cherry orchard and building holiday cottages on the land – that’s distasteful to the family, and excruciating to Ranevskaya, for whom the place is forever connected with such indelible and awful memories. But if his proposal seems brutal, his manner is not – in contrast to Tom Mothersdale’s poisonous Yasha, the arrogant, duplicitous valet who has been attending on Ranevskaya in Paris. He unceremoniously shoves his hand up the skirts of the housemaid Dunyasha (Sarah Ridgeway), before snarling rejection at her. And shockingly, in the final scene, he deliberately misleads the family into believing that the elderly retainer Firs (Gawn Grainger) has been taken to hospital, before kicking the old man’s legs out from under him and leaving him to die in a deserted, cold, locked house as the snow falls outside. It’s a more nakedly horrifying moment than you will often seen in a Chekhov production: uncompromisingly grim, and hard to forget.


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