In 2011, budding young playwright Vinay Patel went to see the National Theatre production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starring Zoë Wanamaker as Russian aristocrat Ranyevskaya returning to determine the fate of her family estate. It was the first time he’d seen the play.
“I was very much in that stage of engaging with theatre as a thing where everything was good and I was stupid, so I had to go learn what the good things were,” says Patel. “And I just remember watching it and going ‘man, this is so boring‘. I mean, it was fine, fine – a little dull. But then that ending of the play – it sort of blew my mind. It was the bleakest, funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I felt like I was on drugs. I think it made me appreciate how funny the play is. Chekhov has this reputation as a miserable Russian man, but actually, it’s a very silly play. It was that last scene that clued me into the fact that there was something more going on than I had suspected.”
Patel has since gone on to become one of the most promising voices in contemporary UK theatre as writer of True Brits and An Adventure, as well as working in television with acclaimed scripts for Murdered by My Father, The Good Karma Hotel and two episodes of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who.
Eventually, he met his strange fascination with The Cherry Orchard head on.
“I had a meeting with Jay Miller, the artistic director of The Yard, this experimental theatre in east London” he says. “I’d loved lots of stuff I’d seen there but I didn’t really write anything of the sort that they put on, as I told them when we had the meeting. I said I had no ideas for them – ‘except, oh well, I do have this one. I think it’d be really interesting to put Chekhov on a spaceship’. I saw Jay’s face and I was like ‘is that anger, or is that thinking?’ He kind of went ‘yeah, yeah…’ trying to run it through in his head. So I said ‘I’ll write you up a little blurb for it’. On any project, I’ll write the blurb that I think would be on the back of the play text, so I’ve got an idea of what is it that I think is interesting there. I wrote that up for him, sent it in and went from there.”
Patel’s resulting adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, which lands at HOME in Manchester this week, is certainly a bold take on the original, with a sci-fi setting drawing on the notion of a ‘generation ship’ – that is, a spacecraft taking such a vast, long voyage across the stars that the original crew won’t survive until it reaches the destination, but their descendants will.
“Part of the idea originated when I was in the writers’ room for Doctor Who, actually,” Patel says. “I was thinking about how ridiculous generation ships are, how they are ultimately absurd and boring. They’re exciting as an idea, but the idea of being stuck on this voyage for ages and ages and ages…I thought there was something in that which would be fun.
“A ship that’s in the middle of that journey and falling apart a little bit, that might be a fun place to put the Doctor. It sort of married with this idea in my head about my grandparents. My grandad once said to me that the end-point of his life wasn’t his own life, it was the happiness of me and my sister, his grandchildren. Something in that made me connect the act of immigration on his part and the idea of what a generation ship is, in terms of holding a future for someone else and carrying it for them. Putting those two things together sort of made sense. We knocked some ideas around for it for Doctor Who and didn’t quite like nail it down, but it never quite left in my head.”
Actually, one of Patel’s Doctor Who episodes, 2018’s Demons of the Punjab, told a sci-fi adventure story against a backdrop of the 1947 partition of India, ably demonstrating that the fantastical can be used as a means to explore real issues.
“The thing I really love about Who is how you can bring any topic to it. It’s a show that can switch genre or form or ideas every single time you come back to it. That’s the real treat of it. Doing something like Demons of the Punjab gave me the confidence to think that you could make that work, and the confidence to try and do sci-fi on stage.”
Putting a sci-fi spin on Chekhov
There’s certainly a boldness and sense of ambition in Patel’s work, and his sci-fi spin on The Cherry Orchard is no exception.
“I think the political act of a lot of work I do is not necessarily in the topic, it’s in the gesture. That’s what really excites me. I think there’s always a desire to push stories, especially with characters of an immigrant background to be in a very digestible and neat place. But I’m really interested in main-streaming minority stories. That’s why I was excited to work on Doctor Who in lots of ways. Weirdly, more people have watched a story about partition because of Doctor Who than they would have if it had been a BBC Two drama. In that sense, there is a worth to doing those things.”
To what degree, though, is Patel concerned with the audience for his work? Does it always reach who he wants it to reach?
“You always want the story to land in front of the person who needs to hear it most, right? So that’s your primary audience. And I think about audience a lot, I don’t know if that’s a very fashionable thing, but I really care about who comes to see things. With An Adventure [Patel’s play about the lives of post-war immigrants to the UK], there’s something really powerful in giving people the dignity of dramatisation. I think that’s why we try to make stories. I’m really pleased that my nieces will have that play to get a sense of who their great-grandparents were. There’s a legacy thing there. But also, if you never see yourself being the container of a universal story, I think it is harder to examine yourself in the world. I definitely felt that when I was younger. If theatre’s for the people who need to see it, this version of The Cherry Orchard is basically for a 15-year-old nerd me who was growing up in the suburbs of south east London.”
Patel’s hope for the production is that the sci-fi helps make the Chekhov more accessible and the Chekhov lends weight to the sci-fi.
“If this was your first Chekhov, I wanted you to come away almost with the opposite reaction of what I had when I saw that [2011 National Theatre] version. I hope that making it a bit playful and fun on the surface, with that setting shift, will mean that anyone who’s like vaguely heard of Chekhov but thought it was probably a bit dull or a bit severe will take a punt on it.”
He also has a strong urge to shake off a common reading of the play equating the setting to an old English country house. “I think people in this country just really love an old country house in a very deep emotional way that they can’t bring out of themselves. I think that skews how the play has been looked at and received here in particular.”
For Patel, it’s vital that Chekhov wrote the play just a few years before the Russian Revolution.”I think we don’t really have that connection to radicalism in the same way here. When we put it with that setting of that grand old country house, it creates a romance and a tragedy to it which Chekhov never really wanted.
“He called it a comedy and I think he did that very deliberately. He didn’t want to give those aristocratic characters the dignity of tragedy. In versions I’ve seen of the play, that kind of gets lost in the mix. They’re looking for that slight romanticisation. It’s like ‘oh, well, what feckless, fun, aristocrats’ – and there’s a romance to that. There is a romance to science fiction, of course, and I did want to have that element in there. But my hope is with this version of it, weirdly, taking it away from Earth brings out the earthly politics a bit more, which I think Chekhov was originally trying to push it towards.”
Main image: Johan Persson
The Cherry Orchard is at HOME Manchester until November 19, 2022, click here for details on tickets.