The Cherry Orchard review – Katie Mitchell presents the view from the trees

The Guardian
The Guardian
The Cherry Orchard. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey/Schauspielhaus

The orchard of Chekhov’s play has typically been viewed as a metaphor for social change. In her new version, director Katie Mitchell invites us to see it for what it is: a natural ecosystem, sustaining a complex web of life forms. After more than a century of silence, the trees are finally getting their say.

There is still a cast of human characters in this production but their roles are minimised. Sealed in a soundproofed, glass-fronted box, we only hear fragments of their dialogue, with the rest of the lines muffled or distorted. On screens above them, Grant Gee and Ellie Thompson’s video captures the changing life of the orchard in gorgeous detail. Bees cluster around the blossoms. An ant crawls into a rotting cherry. A hedgehog emerges from the undergrowth.

Mitchell has become well known for this hybrid genre of live cinema. But whereas usually this technique offers psychological interiority through intimate closeups on human faces, here nature is the star. We only see the play’s characters on screen when they step out into the orchard, which they use and abuse as a backdrop for their human drama.

The message is blunt, spelled out in giant letters on screen at the start of the show: if we keep trashing the natural world, it – and we – will collapse. But aside from a couple of on-the-nose images, the performance itself is more complex and interesting. By dividing spectators’ attention between the screens above and the technically complex operations on stage below, Mitchell hints at both the opposition and the interconnection between the human and non-human. A dazzling rug-pull about two-thirds of the way through warps our very understanding of time and causality.

Unlike some of Mitchell’s other eco-theatre work, this production is far from carbon-neutral. However, its environmental value lies elsewhere, in its challenge to our imaginative relationship with nature. How do you put nature on stage? It’s a question that Mitchell and her collaborators grapple with, creating an experiment that asks us to reconsider our own ideas about the natural world we so often take for granted.

• In repertory at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus , Hamburg. The next performances are on 28 November, 8 and 26 December.

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