Writer Vinay Patel on sending Chekhov into space: “I feel I’ve earned taking a swing”

·11-min read
 (Oliver Rosser, Feast Creative)
(Oliver Rosser, Feast Creative)

Vinay Patel was seven years old when he first attempted to put an epic science-fiction story on stage. Sadly for the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, he spent so much time putting up the elaborate tinfoil set during the school assembly that his allotted time ran out and he was unceremoniously hauled off before a word could be uttered.

He remembered the story earlier this month as he watched set designers creating the set for his new play, a radical retelling of Chekhov set in space. “I was looking at that set thinking, ‘This is my revenge’,” he laughs.

It is clear from the outset, then, that The Cherry Orchard, which opens at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick next week, is no run-of-the-mill Chekhov revival. This tale of a Russian aristocrat living in denial as the tides of history shift against her has been relocated from a turn of the 20th century Russian country estate, to a spacecraft billion of miles from earth.

Patel – whose TV work includes Doctor Who and BBC drama Murdered by my Father, and who was named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit in 2016 – says “Sci fi was just one of those things that always had a very meaningful, emotional thing for me. It was always the thing that connected to me as a kid. I always know I exist in the future whereas in a lot of things I see, I don’t. So it felt like a place of possibility.”

He pitched the idea to the Yard’s artistic director Jay Miller in 2019. “I’d got to a point in my career where I’d written some relatively traditional things, at least touching on topics that were very close and pertinent to me, I was like, ‘F**k it, I feel I’ve earned taking a swing’.”

The Cherry Orchard has a particular resonance for Patel. He first saw it at the National Theatre in 2011, starring Zoe Wanamaker. He found the play tough to engage with. “When I was watching it that young, I just don’t think I’d had enough disappointment in my life. The Cherry Orchard is a play that really responds to loss and heartache and people who have lived more.”

But then the ending made him sit up. The house has been boarded up and the family departed, and by accident they’ve left the old servant Firs behind to die. “I thought this was the bleakest darkest joke. And it had a sitcom setup. I thought, ‘I’ve misread everything.’ That really connected me to it.”

Part of the reason for setting it in space was taking it out of the traditional country-house stagings. “Dislocating it from a familiar background lets people see the politics at work in the play in a fresher way. It feels less like an old fusty thing.”

And it is a play that speaks to today, he says. While the aristocrats in The Cherry Orchard are not malevolent “it’s the structures they represent. It’s the way that people holding most power can seem like they’re not doing anything explicitly damaging, but the thing they represent and the power they sit within is what causes the harm. That’s what’s so astute about The Cherry Orchard and that is sort of where we are now.”

There’s even a “Boris Johnson element” to the play. “Oh, let’s hold some parties and everything will be fine… It doesn’t matter that the fundamental bedrock of this country is rotting away.”

Talking to Patel is an invigorating experience. Sat in a small white box of an audition room in a building close to Waterloo station, he is laid back after stepping out of rehearsals, wearing a grey t-shirt and green shorts.

Publicity image of the cast of The Cherry Orchard
Publicity image of the cast of The Cherry Orchard

He talks quietly but urgently, the next thought spilling out and overlapping the last one. The subjects dart all over the place from the Olympics to immigration, to politics, the structures of writing and football. But they all link in; he is a writer in control of all the narrative strands, giving them room to run before tying them up.

One of his most personal stories was told in his 2018 play An Adventure, a sweeping epic set over six decades, staged at the Bush Theatre. It drew on the stories of his grandparents, who had an arranged marriage and moved from India to Britain, via Kenya. The Evening Standard hailed the work and said Patel “combines a gift for creating complex characters with a piercing emotional intelligence”.

A production due to be staged in Bolton was twice delayed by the pandemic. When it finally went ahead, on opening night his grandmother went into hospital. “So I was sat watching this play about my grandparents literally while my grandma was dying.” She died three days later, about a year after his grandfather, who had encouraged him to write. Patel was the last family member to see her. “I was able to tell her literally while she was on her deathbed, ‘There’s a story about your life happening somewhere.’”

Patel grew up in Bexley, south-east London. He remembers an early love of writing, often sat at the kitchen table, and his developing passion for sci-fi, which included watching Star Trek sat on the edge of his dad’s bed - his mother died when he was young.

His first foray into using his creativity around sci fi was an attempted adaptation was of The Matrix with his pals when he was 15, relocating Neo and friends to Dartford. But the ambitious project collapsed: “My best friend insisted his girlfriend played Trinity, but he kept breaking up with people!”

 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

What partly drew him to the film, he says, is how it has “an incredibly diverse cast, and at the same time wears it lightly, it’s not a big part of what it is”. He wants to do the same thing with The Cherry Orchard. His adaptation, which has a cast of all South Asian performers, had the working title of (Brown) Chekhov in Space. “I got rid of that in the end because I did want it to be faithful to the play – I wasn’t breaking it enough to justify that title. And really bluntly, I didn’t want the actors to feel like they were in a joke.

“My big bugbear is that when you’re allowed to do an adaptation with this sort of cast it is almost always in the frame of colonialism or violence... I wanted to push it outside of that frame completely and see what happens. It’s hard because people don’t know what button it is pushing.”

He remembers once being at the National Theatre and overhearing a posh couple. “One of them said, ‘Are we seeing the Indian play or the gay play?’ That is the way people think of those things. So how do you disrupt that thought process?”

Patel didn’t come to writing until a few years after graduating from Exeter University, where he read English. After a stint of corporate filmmaking and working as a film technician he realised he had to change course, and applied to Central.

After being a play reader for several venues, and winning awards, it was after taking his play True Brits – which juxtaposed the 7/7 bombings with the London Olympics – to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 that he started to be noticed.

We talk a little about the nostalgia for the London Olympics which has peaked recently with the 10-year anniversary. “The thing I remember from the Olympics was that everyone was smiling,” Patel says. “I had been very optimistic about the future when I was younger, until there was a point that I realised my existence here is entirely contingent on what other people think of me... During the Olympics, for a couple of weeks, I didn’t feel that.”

Anjana Vasan (left) and Aysha Kala in An Adventure at the Bush Theatre in 2018 (Helen Murray)
Anjana Vasan (left) and Aysha Kala in An Adventure at the Bush Theatre in 2018 (Helen Murray)

A big moment for him at the time was wearing the shirt of the Great Britain football team, which had the Union Flag on it. When he was younger he was terrified of the flag “because it meant someone was going to kick your head in”. He talks about how his grandparents would get bricks through their windows, and he was sent to kickboxing classes, “which was really fun as a kid, but I realise it’s because Stephen Lawrence was murdered down the road”.

He says ultimately the Olympics were a “lovely dazzling, sparkly moment” and he felt happy, “but we haven’t done anything useful with that. And that’s the disappointment. It made me sceptical of spectacle in a bigger way.”

True Brits led to Murdered By My Father on the BBC, his first experience writing for television, about an honour killing in the British-Asian Muslim community. It was highly acclaimed and lead Adeel Akhtar became the first non-white actor to win best actor at the TV BAFTAs. “That was the script that got me into Doctor Who. I started relatively late, and I had two vertiginous leaps.”

He has written two episodes of Doctor Who, with the first – Demons of the Punjab – set against the backdrop of the partition of India. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to get the chance to write a big partition story,’ but could put it in this frame… and it went out to 7 million people.”

The episode was highly acclaimed and nominated for a Hugo award, science fiction’s most prestigious awards. He describes the online response as “intense” though much of the reaction was “surprisingly good”.

“The thing about Doctor Who, it inoculated me from everything else. Once you realise it went out to that many, you know millions of people hated what you’ve written. Once you know that, nothing can touch you again,” Patel says.

 (Oliver Rosser, Feast Creative)
(Oliver Rosser, Feast Creative)

“There will be people who love it and people who hate it, and those who just don’t care. The thing that kept me up for two years, and they’re just – he shrugs – ‘Yeah, it’s fine’. You can’t make work unless you’re happy to sit with that as a reaction. At least you can’t do that and stay sane. And that’s what the show did for me. It also let me do a lot of things I thought would take 10 years to do.”

Patel is now much in demand. He is currently working on the Netflix adaptation of the bestseller One Day by David Nicholls, and he has two film projects – one for Working Title and one for Film 4 ­– which, for now, he has to remain tight lipped about. He had a tough pandemic; in addition to losing his two grandparents he had long covid, but says it changed his perspective. “I felt I didn’t need to impress anyone anymore… The pandemic put to bed for me the stories of where I came from and the people I was trying to play tribute to. It’s led me to a freer place.”

As we wrap up, I mention that earlier this year director Milli Bhatia had referenced his Cherry Orchard as she had talked about being excited about the diversity of South Asian stories on main theatre stages currently. This year has seen The Father and the Assassin at the National, Lotus Beauty at Hampstead Theatre and Favour at the Bush. That will be followed at the venue by The P Word, Word-Play at the Royal Court and of course The Cherry Orchard, among others.

“It’s wonderful. There are so many wonderfully talented writers and directors and artists,” Patel says. “There have been more South Asian plays this year than I think I’ve seen in the entirety of my life. What I love isn’t just the amount of work, but the way it’s all very different. I like that I get to be weirder as I feel I’m slotting into a larger mosaic.”

However he remains anxious. “You talk to someone from an older generation, and they’re like, ‘We had this in the Eighties and Nineties.’ I went to a reading of three plays from the Eighties and thought, ‘They’re brilliant and I didn’t know anything about that.’ So I am slightly hesitant. But the sheer amount now, the whole ecosystem has changed.” He adds, “The way people are engaging in that work is starting to shift and that’s the really exciting thing.”

The Cherry Orchard runs at the Yard Theatre from Sept 5 to Oct 22; theyardtheatre.co.uk