As an absolute credit to its ability to entertain and provoke, I left MTC’s The Cherry Orchard captivated by its mostly likeable characters, but challenged by some potential class interpretations.
With the help of director Simon Stone – who has been making waves in the theatre community with some controversial adaptations – The Cherry Orchard is contextually situated somewhere between post-serfdom 19th century Russia and contemporary Australia.
Originally by Anton Chekov, the play centres on the matriarch of an aristocratic family, Ranevsky (Pamela Rabe), who returns to her home (location uncertain) after a long, wild sojourn in Paris where she was eventually abandoned by her lover, only to face crippling debt and the prospect of having to sell her beloved family estate. Lopahkin (Steve Mouzakis), a newly-wealthy property developer offers her and her brother, Gayev (Robert Menzies), a way out: to bulldoze the beautiful but financially worthless cherry orchard and replace it with a set of units. His pleas fall on deaf ears as the aging siblings’ disregard for the critical nature of their situation, coupled with their desire to keep the orchard – a symbol of their childhood – ensures the estate is a lost cause.
Directors have always been at grips as to whether to adapt Chekov’s play as a tragedy or a comedy, and to this extent it seems that Stone has struck a somewhat gratifying balance. Gayev’s eccentric behaviour (like making a heartfelt speech to an antique cupboard), Yepikhodov’s (Gareth Davies) clumsiness and laughable attempts at wooing Dunyasha (Nikki Shiels), and the elderly manservant Firs’ delightful randomness and senility provide comic relief that would satisfy the shortest attention span. While most viewers would be satisfied in calling the play a tragi-comedy, the side to which it errs more strongly is important.
It should be noted that there is only one dislikeable character: the young manservant, Yasha (David Paterson), an inconsiderate lout who uses Dunyasha to satisfy his lust, then dumps her heartlessly after she falls in love with him. Other characters are similarly flawed but in a way that’s relatable. Ranevsky, who has always been haunted by the death of her young song and now has to part with her estate, has a propensity to self-sabotage – giving her money away and getting too emotionally invested in doomed relationships. Lopahkin is a rags-to-riches character who is obsessed with wealth and business yet painfully aware of his background.
In no small part due to superb acting, each character manages to stir up a range of emotions within the audience, to the extent that it’s easy to sympathise with their upper middle class angst. However, it’s telling that Chekov was devastated to find the first rendition of his play, directed by Constantin Stanislavski, moulded into a tragedy. This was presumably because as a tragedy, the central message of The Cherry Orchard is undermined.
As an audience, we’re not meant to sympathise too strongly with the characters. The comedic elements are meant to ground them – to expose the meaninglessness of their wealth and the tail-end of the temporary happiness that it provides. Stone’s adaptation doesn’t adequately capture this. With the exception of central character Gayev’s quirks (who is for the most part quite depressive), most of the comedy comes off as inessential to the plot. The melodrama – especially Ranevsky’s various breakdowns – well and truly tip the play’s scales in favour of tragedy. The point is that the characters – in all their ridiculousness – were all too familiar.
There’s a lot to admire about Stone’s adaptation though. The crucial line comes from Trofimov (Toby Truslove) when he remarks that rich people and poor people are both obsessed with wealth. Coming from a supposed leftist-intellectual character, the comment seems a bit throw-away and simplistic; it’s difficult to take seriously a character who gives long speeches about one man’s wealth being at the expense of another’s exploited labour, and then claims their aspirations for wealth are the same. But the line is a clear dig at Lopahkin. In the Russian post-serfdom context, the newly-wealthy Lopahkin is a depraved and ironic character who, despite his roots, fights for acceptance and identity with his money. In the contemporary Australian context, he is no longer ironic; he is poignant. He serves as a reminder not to measure one’s self-worth in relation to money: a worrying trend in any classist society that pervades culture and the media. Perhaps this is what Yepikhodov, for all his idiocy, means when – breaking the fourth wall – he comments that people should stop going to the theatre and look within themselves.