Review by Hannah Fredriksson Perth Festival organisers have gone to great lengths to meticulously re-organise a season of performances that would otherwise have been cancelled due to a last minute, albeit very brief lockdown in our city. I'm very glad that this run of The Cherry Orchard was shifted back to allow patrons to attend comfortably and safely, as the entire experience is so well rounded and enchanting that it definitely deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Performed in the Sunset Heritage Precinct along the Swan River in Dalkeith, this adaptation of a classic Chekhov play pays great respect to the location by having the audience move through different parts of the site for each act. The distances are comfortable and – on the day that I attended, anyway – the weather was permitting, if not perfect, as two of the acts are held in the open air. This is a tactile experience that immerses you in the story with all your senses; moving from a hall to a grassy hill where the characters have a family picnic you can smell the snags cooking on the public barbecue. When they refer to the river, you can see behind them the river they are referring to. This creates a sense of proximity within the environment that one rarely experiences while watching a performance. It feels as though you are a part of their lives, rather than watching from the infamous fourth-wall. While the original version of the play is set in Russia in the 1880s, co-writers Adriane Daff and Katherine Tonkin have adapted the script to centre around Manjimup, WA in the 1980s. Only the names of the characters serve as a reminder of the Russian origins. The time period is repeatedly embraced through the use of music, often from vinyl records played by the characters themselves on stage. The songs chosen are perfectly thematic, on-the-nose without being cliché. Though Chekhov intended this play to be a farce, it is often interpreted as a tragedy. Director Clare Watson's interpretation leans into both, with pure whimsy providing stark contrast for poignant moments of sorrow. There is a catharsis in seeing the family leave their home for the final time, despite the inaction that lead them to that fate. The cast is a collection of some amazing Australian actors. Sam Longley's abnormally tall frame is cast perfectly for the comically inept Yepikhodov, his penchant for physical comedy is well utilised. Hayley McElhinney is wonderful as Ranyevskaya, the owner of the orchard, shifting from joyously uninhibited to broken and despondent without missing a beat. George Shevtsov is absolutely magnetic as the very old servant Firs. Though a minor role, he commands attention merely with his presence. Upon returning for bows there is a spry spring in his step that is youthful and endearing, I am convinced he would have made a perfect Dumbledore. Adding to the completeness of the experience is the inclusion of a Russian-themed menu for dinner during the interval – I recommend trying the Pierogi. A selection of vodkas is also on offer in addition to the standard beer, wine and cider. Every facet of the evening has been considered. Black Swan State Theatre Company has created a uniquely engaging experience that will not easily be forgotten. It's a reminder that performance is not limited to stages and theatres, and that the venue itself can inform and be part of the story. This story that began over a hundred years ago in Russia and ended in Dalkeith enabled me to feel more connected to my home – I highly recommend adding The Cherry Orchard to your Perth Festival itinerary.
Photo Credit: Daniel J Grant