Reinventing the classics can open up some incredible theatrical choices. Relating to today’s world of city problems and mayhem, the works of the past can open up issues of our lives in the twenty-first century. However, done without extreme consideration, setting a classic in another era can do more damage than good and pull the piece apart if you are not careful.
Following the success of Katie Mitchell’s The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic, PK Productions updates Chekhov’s masterpiece to the 1970s and brings the family drama to the intimate New Wimbledon Studio. Ruby and her party have returned from years abroad to the family estate, in serious debt and with the notice of the beloved cherry orchard being sold at an auction looming over their heads. Memories – good and bad – are revisited and love intrigues explored as they all await the day money runs out and the estate is gone forever.
Mitchell’s production at the Young Vic sets the bar high, and though fringe productions can take great risks, Patrick Kennedy’s production falls a bit flat as the characters never really inhabit the important relationships that Chekhov’s play is all about. Set in the UK and with a hippie influence, the production never justifies its change of era, but seems to aim for laughs rather than contextual depth. The simple set doesn’t really impress, but is great fun in Act II as the party inhabits the estate garden with a small paddling pool, sun-chairs and sunscreen. Scene changes are stiff and at times long and clumsy, and though the music makes us dance in our seats, the sound is poor and often too loud and abruptly turned off.
The story lacks flavour as most characters never really listen to one another or work as an ensemble – we often lose real connection and depth between them, though Stephanie Hampton (Barbara) and Sarah Lambie have some tender moments together. Ben Woodhall’s performance as Peter clearly stands out, and he brings intriguing subtext to his character with such subtlety that he steals focus in every scene. Michael Radford brings charm and nuance to the confident Jacob, but unfortunately the rest of the cast never really manage to affect us. Janet Lurie Dawe’s Ruby has great energy but is too ditsy and unconnected to manage the tragic gravity of the character and her past that is constantly nagging at her – recollections of past events are rushed, and we never experience the images of her son’s death and her turbulent love life. Most is delivered on one note, which is a shame as Chekhov really knows how to write female characters and her contradictory behaviour brings lots of flavour to the play.
The highlight of the play is Anna and Peter’s connection, a scene really exploring different varieties and colours of the piece. Matthew Durkan (Simon) and Andrew Venning (Lyle) equally find interesting character qualities, but as a whole the production is missing a bit of detail in characters and their world. With sexual scenes grotesquely animated, it lacks a bit of confidence and needs a stricter hand to guide the story and relationships through the rich world of The Cherry Orchard.
The Cherry Orchard played at the New Wimbledon Studio until 8 November. For more information visit the PK Productions website.