by Laura Kressly
Through his most recent play An Adventure, writer Vinay Patel proved he can masterfully sustain family dramas grappling with big themes. By sticking close to Chekhov’s original story, this adaptation of The Cherry Orchard set in the distant future does similar. A spaceship replaces the estate, but the strict social stratification with a stark disparity in privilege mirror early-1900s Russia. It’s a smart adaptation that works well in surprising ways, though the heavy use of Chekhovian, reflective dialogue and a lack of high conflict mean the story is often slow and baggy.
After a five-year absence to grieve her son’s death, Captain Prema Ramesh (Anjali Ray) returns to the aging spaceship she hereditarily commands with much nostalgic affection. However, her power is challenged by her team’s discovery of a new, possibly life-sustaining, planet. This isn’t a problem, but the news leaking to the ship’s crew – or ‘downdeckers’ – is for the Captain’s grip on her power. For the workers, who don’t have access to windows, good living conditions or decent food, it means they can finally have a chance to improve their lives and escape the rigid routines of ship life. For Ramesh, it means a rejection of the Ancestors’ centuries-old mission to reach the Destination, even if no one really understands or articulates what that means anymore. Unrest rumbles through the belly of the ship whilst Ramesh and her brother Lohit (Neil D’Souza) reminisce about the old days and admire the ship’s extensive cherry orchard that the downdeckers are not allowed to visit. The younger generation – Ramesh’s daughters and a few high-level ship staff – generally see little value in the traditions that dictate the ship’s hierarchies and way of life.
This understandably leads to conflict and tension, but Patel keeps these tightly leashed. There’s no violent overthrowing of a dictator; instead there are meetings and votes that eventually lead to a transfer of power. It’s all rather calm and orderly, which undermines the downdeckers’ suffering that is never shown. This all makes sense to a point – look at the current lack of rebellion in Britain despite years of rights being eroded and the quality of life being reduced – but it’s not dramatic. The chain of events as they are don’t take into account that overthrowing a leader is often messy, violent business. Chief Engineer Abinash (Maanuv Thiara), of downdecker stock, regularly reports discontent and advocates for change, but this is all telling and no showing. It also suggests a particularly British whinging that lacks any actual action. Whilst this suits the play’s source material and the the Captain’s obsession with tradition, there’s no grand pay-off or exciting climax. Apart from losing her command, Ramesh doesn’t face any meaningful consequences for perpetuating her people’s suffering for so long.
However, life on a Russian country estate and on a spaceship certainly have commonalities that Patel cannily mines – isolation means self-sufficiency, and many staff are needed just to keep the place going. There’s a respect of nature for those with the privilege to enjoy it, whereas others see it as a resource that could better them. People fight and fall in love when they’re kept so close to each other with little to do other than work. These moments of humanity and personal connection where Patel allows his characters to express their vulnerability, are the most poignant.
In this extreme environment, with nothing around them except abyss, it’s easy to wonder what the ship’s mission and labour is all for. Apart from Ramesh and her sense of fulfilling the Ancestors’ dreams, everyone else keeps things going for the sake of it. This prompts a broader existential gloominess – What is any of this for? Why are we working so hard for such small, personal pay-off and all we’re doing is trashing the world around us?
The Cherry Orchard runs through 22 October.
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