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5th November 2022

Review: The Cherry Orchard

Vinay Patel’s sci-fi reimagining of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which features South Asians in space, is currently orbiting around HOME
Review: The Cherry Orchard
Photo: Johan Persson

I’m not a huge fan of watching classics. Studying Shakespeare is great. Watching it, not so much.

The Royal Shakespeare Company modernises his plays, but I still have little desire to see most of it; the Elizabethan English and dramatic delivery just turns me off. I’m up for seeing certain operas, but the only operas I’ve ever seen are operas by Opera North – who do to opera what the RSC does to Shakespeare. Whilst their productions are phenomenal, I do find myself getting a little bored; I just struggle to connect with works so old.

Then there’s modern classics. Well, I caught Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Royal Exchange Theatre but only because Maxine Peake was in it. Peake is one of the greatest actors of our time, but not even she could save it. Beckett is, simply, unenjoyable (but I guess that’s sort of the point of his work).

When it comes to classics, I generally only see them if they are reimaginings – better yet, deconstructions and subversions, like & Juliet. I caught Rashdash’s playful, feminist take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters a few years back, and I quite enjoyed it. Contemporary Chekhov works because the themes and issues he tackled are still relevant today; his work, itself, is just not entertaining for many – and by virtue of audiences struggling to connect with it, and its characters, it can feel irrelevant.

The latest Chekhov reimagining comes from Vinay Patel. He has reimagined The Cherry Orchard… with South Asians… in space! Now, how could I possibly not go to see a South Asian sci-fi adaptation of Chekhov’s final play?!

In all honesty, I did not know much about The Cherry Orchard, which allowed me to watch it with a fresh set of eyes and be taken on a fun, sociopolitical journey – with Indians in space! Had I known the story, I might have appreciated the reimagining more, but I recognised the brilliance of turning this timeless story about class struggles into a sci-fi. Patel has updated it, given it new relevance, and, best of all, made it entertaining.

I must admit, though, after the initial appeal of seeing South Asians onstage, and the commanding presence of the spaceship, the excitement soon wore off. Gradually, it just felt like we were watching Chekhov in a cooler setting – even though the play was, indisputably, a sci-fi. However, upon reflection, I now appreciate the intricacies of this production; there was a great attention to detail and much to analyse.

The sci-fi aspects of the play were undeniably brilliant. The set, itself, was simple but spectacular (and I really don’t know how they managed to get the Two of Diamonds card on the window). It span around slowly, representing days passing by. It seemed to signify a lack of change; the same old.

Indeed, tradition is at the heart of this play. The captain and her family (the ruling elite in this space society) constantly refer to the “ancestors”, and insist on keeping things the same to honour their ancestors, even though it is at the expense of the crew (the working-class who crave a better standard of living). Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard addresses the emergence of a middle-class in early 20th century Russia, and this adaptation makes sure to explore that same dilemma in the distant future.

The cast is not defined by their being Asian. There are mentions to their ancestry and culture, but Patel has arguably done something more progressive: he has given iconic roles to South Asian actors because why the hell not? Why can’t Asians play these roles?

That said, Asianness is important to the story and its themes. At times, the play reminded me of the works of Palestinian filmmaker Larissa Sansour, who uses sci-fi as a medium to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an inventive way.

Patel, meanwhile, seeks to quell Eurocentrism. Whiteness is no longer the default. Ambitious Indians are now in charge, ruling space. One of the characters even makes a comment about “Caucasians”, telling the other that, back on Earth, there used to be people with skin as White as their teeth – to the disbelief of the other. Whiteness is not just sidelined; it is not even ignored. Rather, it is dismissed after a brief mention, rendered irrelevant, and then never spoken about again.

The beginning of the second act opens with a Dandiya dance; a brief, beautiful nod to the characters’ culture. Some of the cast wear traditional Indian clothing for the rest of the act. The Captain (Anjali Ray) admits to not knowing what the celebration represents; that knowledge has been lost, but they do it anyway – presumably, because it is tradition. This throwaway comment will be missed by many, but I picked up on it as part of a wider theme: the limitations that come from tradition; the illogicality of doing something just because it has always been done with no thought behind it and no desire to change.

Whilst the characters are not defined by their heritage, tradition and community are incredibly important in South Asian communities, so making the characters South Asian adds another layer. Patel seems to be interrogating the “keeping up appearances” logic that persists in South Asian communities, even here in the West.

Further, Patel is arguably criticising the great class divide in both South Asia and South Asian communities abroad. There is often a lack of solidarity on behalf of rich immigrants and people of colour, especially South Asians, who see themselves as the “good” immigrants, the ones who worked hard; gatekeepers who want to close the doors behind them. With Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister, and other anti-immigration South Asians in top positions in the last three governments, this has never been more relevant.

This can be seen not only amongst the arrogant, ignorant ruling family but even amongst the artificial intelligence onboard: the voice of the spaceship seems to look down on the malfunctioning robot that has been around longer than she has. She is advanced, and whilst the ruling family dismiss him, they adore her. She even jokes, “It’s every AI for themselves”.

At the end of the play (SPOILER), she is freed, whilst the family forget all about the robot and leave him onboard the now-defunct spaceship. The AI has risen the ranks and been allowed freedom; the robot, no longer a slave (or a “serf”, given the Russian origin of the play) has been freed, by virtue of being forgotten – but he is trapped in the abandoned, failed project of his former masters; he will never escape his captors even though they abandoned him; he will always be a slave. This seems to represent the notion that no matter how hard people work, and how successful people become, they will always be judged by their origin, whether they are people of colour or from working-class families.

There are a couple of brief mentions to colonialism, and over the course of the play, the characters talk about colonising a planet. Indians, once the victims of colonialism, are now its agent, its perpetrators. This is, surely, a commentary on repeating history – and, worse, the oppressed becoming the oppressors. Of course, it is easy for the oppressed to become the oppressors because they know how it works.

Further, by virtue of not knowing that White people ever existed, these characters are probably oblivious to the colonialism that was inflicted upon the ancestors they claim to honour. This represents the danger of not learning history. In this post-truth era of fake news and alternative facts, where books are banned and films are censored, the possibility of a future where people are completely ignorant to some of the worst crimes ever committed is incredibly insidious (and worse, perfectly plausible).

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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