The Cherry Orchard at the Donmar Warehouse review: bold, brilliant and utterly captivating take on Chekhov

Nina Hoss and Adeel Akhtar in The Cherry Orchard (Johan Persson)
Nina Hoss and Adeel Akhtar in The Cherry Orchard (Johan Persson)

Revelatory. That’s the word for Australian director Benedict Andrews’s updated version of Chekhov’s 1904 tale, that hits the play’s poles of tragedy and comedy with devastating accuracy.

Beneath the references to vapes, “f**kwits” and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Andrews links the epochal shift in Chekhov’s world, where an old ruling order is passing, to our own – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly.

The actors sit among the fully-lit audience around a stage bare apart from heavy carpet; rock musicians noodle in the wings and then out front; everyone wears wilfully, insanely horrible clothes.

Yet it all feels entirely true to the spirit of the original. I’ve never seen an audience laugh so hard at this play, nor seen the closing scene with servant Firs performed as movingly as it is here – gender-swapped – by the great June Watson, who is in her late 80s.

German stage star Nina Hoss is heartbreaking and exasperating as landowner Ranevskaya, unable to get her head around love, money, or the imminent loss of the family estate and its cherry orchard.

Adeel Akhtar, so often cast in downtrodden roles, is astonishing here as the coiled and volatile Lopakhin, the grandson of a serf who takes it from her. These two are on equal footing with newcomers, rising stars and established character actors here though, so strong and tight is the international ensemble, who all use their own accents.

Daniel Monks and Sadie Soverall in The Cherry Orchard (Johan Persson)
Daniel Monks and Sadie Soverall in The Cherry Orchard (Johan Persson)

Andrews is known for radical productions of classics around the world, including thrilling versions of Three Sisters and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, but here does something new. Characters onstage acknowledge and make eye contact with those ‘offstage’ in the audience, who, in turn, subtly react to what they shouldn’t be hearing.

It adds another layer to the enforced, fretful proximity of figures of different classes, temperaments, ages and expectations. Some audience members are tangentially enlisted – one gets to play a bookcase – without it breaking the spell. (On opening night there were quite a few thesps in the front row, which probably made it easier.)

The updated script is fluent, though when Akhtar’s Lopakhin talks of funding a “construction project in Kharkiv” – a Russian city in Chekhov’s day, now in Ukraine – it strikes a chilling note.

A rant by Daniel Monks’s eternal student radical Trofimov about the ills of our contemporary world, from environmental disaster to wealth inequality, is defrayed as the other characters play a sunnily heedless game of toss-the-kopek.

It feels wrong to single out individual actors for praise but the insouciance of Ranevskaya’s boytoy companion Yasha (Nathan Armarkwei Laryea) and the vexation of her adopted daughter and housekeeper Varya (Marli Siu) are perfectly balanced. And there is brilliant work from newcomer Sadie Soverall as Ranevsakaya’s spoiled and adored “real” daughter Anya, and Éanna Hardwicke, making a confident stage debut as the hapless accountant Yepikhodov.

There’s a risk that the techniques of Andrews and his fellow brilliant iconoclasts Robert Icke and Simon Stone – brusque updating, wrong-footing music, a bold visual concept – might themselves become clichés. But that’s in the future. Right now this is a bold, brilliant distillation of Chekhov, and utterly captivating.

Donmar Warehouse to June 22;