A low, persistent rumble carries under the spare and careful action of Katie Mitchell’s brilliant revival. Sound designer Gareth Fry sends a brutal, distorted steam train out across the shuttered scene changes, but it is his subtler work in creating an aural mirror for the deep shadows of Vicki Mortimer’s set that contributes so much to the bleakness of this Cherry Orchard. Mitchell brings her strange skills in creating a haunted successor to naturalism to bear in the muted conversations and the refusal of false intimacies or completions, but everywhere the world she creates is grounded in Fry’s gloomy echoing, as if Russia is still disturbed by the aftershocks of a collapse.
This House of Gayev may as well be Usher’s, its rooms are so large and unfillable and it feels so sensitive to the slightest movement or sound. When Lyubov (Kate Duchêne) and her family return to the home they left they find inhospitable rooms they can no longer fill and their old roles utterly emptied out. Where other productions find farcical enjoyment in the gaps between expectations and reality and the host of decrepit characters that maraud about the stage, here there’s little to pierce the gothic gloom. Simon Stephens’ adaptation eschews the flashy for the stripped back and dried, its comedy desiccated and ironical and its tragedy bloodless but merciless.
What Mitchell focuses on here is something like a sense of sin that must but ultimately cannot be atoned for. While we feel the descent of Lyubov’s final hopes for redemption and return to golden days to be genuinely gutting, we’re never allowed to lose sight of the appalling world of serfdom which illuminated them in the first place. If everything is collapsing into decay and the orchard is coming down, there are no illusions as to where the rot set in. Hard-nosed and ruthless businessman Alexander (Dominic Rowan) is just the monster that follows in its wake.
There are some scattered laughs at the elderly Firs (Gawn Grainger), but his feebleness and the way it is treated here feels fiercely and inexcusably cruel. There’s a sense of menace everywhere in this production, but it’s not at what’s to come, it has nothing to do with the waiting axes and cottages, but with what has already happened. The house doesn’t feel lonely or like a cause for nostalgia, but more like a ghost-ridden prison. By containing all action within its walls, Stephens and Mitchell create a number of powerfully original moments, best of all the terrifying entrance of a wandering tramp (Andy Cresswell). Instead of alighting on the party at a picnic, he instead simply walks into the room from the creaking corridor opposite. It’s a brilliant evocation of the retreat of that cosy protection that the Gayev’s wealth and status once afforded them – it’s a shuddering moment of threat, almost sexual threat, a note which is picked up at several points to prick and provoke the games of marriage and marriagability that make up the play’s constant undercurrent.
The performances are generally outstanding – particularly Duchêne, fragile and pitiable, and Angus Wright as her feeble brother Leonid. Paul Hilton may make it a little too easy to like the student Peter, though here, even through his pompous speechifying, he seems like the only character who has any chance of being saved. Perhaps Charlotta too, played well by Sarah Malin, who contends with some slightly disjointed concepts from Mitchell (eccentric at one point equated to ‘naked’ here). Tom Mothersdale also warrants particular note as Yasha, who he mines for all that character’s repellent viciousness.
It’s a singularly bleak adaptation, though one that’s constantly compelling and even entertaining thanks to Stephens’ ear and Mitchell’s unparalleled attention to the details and rhythms which generate compulsive worlds. There is so much which is loaded with meaning and threat here, particularly in Mortimer’s cavernous domestic scene, but Mitchell refuses to allow them to drown out the characters or second-guess Chekov’s storytelling.
Stephens and Mitchell reveal The Cherry Orchard as a play concerned first and foremost with morality, much like Stephens’ Birdland from earlier this year – Chekov’s characters pursued from the mausoleum of their past lives by a dreadful and inevitable reckoning.