Talk about familiar stories. Wealthy land owners in rapidly changing times find themselves unable to maintain the lifestyle they were accustomed to. One option is to sell part of their estate for development, raising enough cash to save the rest of the property. Another is to ignore the truth of this situation and try to maintain the status quo, in turn risking everything they hold dear.
First written in 1903, Anton Chekhov’s final play, ‘The Cherry Tree’, is rightly regarded as a classic of 20th Century theatre. A socio-political comment on the futility of aristocratic self-preservation in the face of impossible odds, and the middle class carving out a role in the brave new world, to say the masterpiece resonates today would be an understatement. 21st Century Britain is, after all, stuck between what was, is, and might be.
A brand new production of the tale opens at HOME this week. Written by Vinay Patel, whose credits include ‘Dr Who’ episodes and the BAFTA-winning ‘Murdered By My Father’, among other things, his version takes the original and drops it into the future. The South Asian-British cast play members of an intergalactic crew, who have only ever known life on their craft until the discovery of a new planet in a habitable zone. Cue major disagreements about what to do next: stay onboard the vessel, or embrace unknown possibilities.
“‘The Cherry Orchard’ was first produced in 1904 and is Chekhov’s last play. He’s really interested in what it means to move from one world to another,” says Patel, explaining the traditional premise revolves around a wealthy family who can no longer afford to run their large ancestral home, partly because the modern world has made things like unpaid labour illegal. Auctioning their orchard so others can build on it could plug the fiscal black hole, but to do that they must first accept the need to move on, and their new place in society.
“This version is set on a spaceship, but I wanted it to be quite truthful to the Chekhov story,” Patel continues. “One of the reasons I love the work is it’s this incredibly tonal play that oscillates between delivering real home truths about the need to adapt, and then 20seconds later there will be a slapstick gag. I think there’s something which feels very truthful in terms of British politics with that. We are very serious, but it’s also all a bit like ‘The Thick of It’.”
While mirroring our political landscape, wherein lines between reality and satire have long-since blurred, the plot is also hugely relevant to wider issues including Brexit, the housing crisis, and disconnect between distribution of wealth in the fifth richest country on the planet, and new economic needs created by a globalised world.
“A lot of people are attracted to this image of what the past is, the rightness of it, the hierarchy of it — the natural order of things. Even people who sort of know that’s ridiculous find on an emotional level it can be be hard to push away from that thinking,” says Patel. “Nothing you offer will be better than the idea of Britain as this amazing global empire. You can come up with as many ideas as you want, people can understand what you’re saying in a logical sense, but emotionally there’s still that notion: ‘We were the great ones’.
“I think we sort of underestimate how much that sits in people’s hearts. And the discourse is like even if they intellectually, and in some capacity emotionally understand things need to change, there’s that fear of what the future will bring, and why it won’t necessarily be good for them,” he continues. “[The play] is about looking at what it means to live in the legacy of a system built on the bones and efforts of other people, while being sympathetic to the emotional connection someone might have to that world… even people who come from backgrounds that should inherently push against those old ideologies.”
‘The Cherry Orchard’ runs at HOME from Wednesday 2nd to Saturday 19th November 2022.
Tickets are available now.