By Liam McLoughlin 21/07/2015
When Anton Chekhov saw the first ever production of The Cherry Orchard in Moscow in January 1904, he was furious. Actor-director Constantin Stanislavski had 'ruined' his play, morphing his family comedy into tragedy. Had the great playwright been cryogenically frozen just before his death of tuberculosis later that year, and reheated for the inaugural production of The Depot Theatre in Marrickville, he would have been a mess of mixed feelings. Distracted by a persistent sense of dislocation and terrified by the futuristic jet engines roaring overhead during Act III, he would undoubtedly have been chuffed by director Julie Baz’s faithful portrayal of the humour of his renowned masterpiece.
The Cherry Orchard opens with the return of noblewoman Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya to her family’s provincial estate in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. Having left to escape memories of her son’s death five years earlier, she is reunited with her daughter Anya, her adopted daughter Varya and her brother Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. The estate’s finances are ruinous and the play’s action centres on the family’s forlorn attempts to prevent its sale as they refuse to face the new social and economic reality. Changing class dynamics are the backbone of the narrative. It charts the declining fortunes of the aristocracy, the lives and loves of the servant class, as well as the rising fortunes of the middle class, in the figure of family friend and peasant-come-millionaire Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin. The shadow of environmental destruction is another important theme, looming across the play’s landscape in the persistent existential threat to the estate’s magnificent cherry orchard.
Chekhov’s play uses great humour to bring levity to some of these heavier themes, and this current production spotlights these moments nicely. Roger Smith gives an outstanding performance as the doddering servant Firs, highly entertaining whether ambling across the stage in silence or expressing hyperbolic indignation at the trivial sartorial decisions of his 'master' Gayev. Myles Burgin is amusing as the clumsy estate clerk Yepikhodov, really committing to several of his slapstick tumbles. David Jeffrey’s depiction of Lopakhin’s awkwardness when he tries to propose to Varya is particularly memorable. Anne Brito also gets a few laughs with her hammy hyperventilation as the histrionic female, leaving no-one in any doubt just how much of a 'delicate, sensitive, silly little creature' she asserts herself to be. I trust the audience laughs were at the absurdity of the stereotype rather than the more disturbing 'it's funny because it's true' response.
While the cast serves comedic purposes well, the same cannot be said about pathos. Many scenes overflow with anger, passion, shame, regret, or sorrow, often in combination. The success of these scenes depends on stirring the audience, but I was left feeling a little cold. Too often it felt like actors delivering lines rather than characters behaving in believable ways. On several occasions the over enunciation made it appear the actor was responding to the request 'Can you please do your best acting voice now?' The melodramatic tone of many interactions also meant it was hard to really care for these characters. There was a sense that some of the actors were intimidated by the fact they were doing an IMPORTANT work by an IMPORTANT playwright, and must use their IMPORTANT voices. For this reason although David Jeffrey’s Australian/NZ twang was in one sense jarring among the mishmash of international accents of the rest of the cast, in another it was a refreshing note of authenticity.
There is however much to be said for the way this version tries to loyally recreate the classic text. The period costumes and set, adorned with fallen autumn leaves, centrepiece rug and daubed cherry orchard canvas, are elegantly evocative of the era. The flipside of this fealty is a somewhat rarefied atmosphere which dares not mine the current relevance of a play about class and environmental devastation. A more modern adaptation could uncover parallels between the delusions about social and economic reality of Russian aristocrats, and those of the ruling classes of global neoliberalism. It could make more of the resonant theme of capitalism’s ruthless materialism, alluded to when Lopakhin says 'the only remarkable thing about this cherry orchard is that it’s very old'. Instead we are offered an overdramatic snapshot of history which apparently says little about the present.
As Chekhov walked home from his night out at the theatre in Marrickville, his profound ambivalence lingered. He was pleased by the obvious reverence for his play and tickled by the moments of comedy. Yet having travelled over 100 years and across the globe, he wished a 2015 Australian version of The Cherry Orchardreflected a little more of the new society he had entered, not just the one he left behind.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
The Cherry Orchard
Playwright: Anton Chekhov
Director: Julie Baz
Set and Lighting Design: David Jeffrey
Costume Design: Lisa Washburn
Sound Design: Julie Baz
Cast: Jane Angharad, Anne Brito, Myles Burgin, Leo Domigan, David Jeffrey, Justine Kacir, Dave Kirkham, Theo Kokkinidis, Emily McGowan, Roger Smith, James Smithers, Cherrie Whalen-David
The Depot Theatre, Marrickville, NSW
15 July - 1 August 2015