Vinay Patel takes Chekhov into space with a sci-fi-tinged reinterpretation of The Cherry Orchard at the Yard Theatre
“Life was easier before the Great System Failure”
For the most part, the prospect of a new Chekhov production doesn’t fill me with too much enthusiasm but pesky theatre producers keep finding ways to draw me back in. Jamie Lloyd put the irresistible prospect of Indira Varma in The Seagull and now at the Yard Theatre, writer Vinay Patel shifts the perspective from the countryside to the cosmos with this spaceship-bound take on The Cherry Orchard.
In some ways, it is a transposition that feels almost effortless. Way in the future, humanity has been forced into the stars towards a farflung new home and the command structure onboard replicates class systems of old. Officers embrace a life of relative privilege, including views of the arboretum where a cherry orchard has been planted and below decks, the crew suffer windowless seclusion where rebellion foments when a passing planet turns out to be unexpectedly habitable, offering a potential end to the centuries of space travel.
Citizens become clones and maids and manservants become onboard AIs and androids but the confusion of tangled emotions remains all too human. Anjali Jay’s Captain Prema Ramesh (the Ranevskaya character) is searingly good, unseeing to the trouble onboard as she mourns her son; Maanuv Thiara’s Lenka as the agent of change is beautifully committed; and Hari MacKinnon’s Feroze delivers an astonishing physical performance as the retainer whose loyalty is being challenged by software glitches. The microcosm built here in the control room feels like a convincing slice of society scared by the change on offer.
At the same time, there’s a lack of tragic imperative to really underpin the play and in reaching for Chekhovian depth, Patel’s writing stretches needlessly to Chekhovian lengths – something James Macdonald’s production struggles to cover, the pacing languishes too often. Creatively though, it looks stunning. Rosie Elnile’s set design skirts the line of old-school Doctor Who perfectly and as it revolves, Jai Morjaria’s shifting lighting work captures the majesty of sudden solar flares through the mundanity of everyday glare. A big swing that doesn’t necessarily fully come off, it is however impeccably acted and full of admirable ambition.