By Michael Kaufmann
The works of Russian writer Anton Chekhov pose an unending dilemma for English speaking dramatics – The plays are (of course) in Russian. For his final Play – The Cherry Orchard - there are the more universally performed translations, like that of British playwright Michael Frayn; whilst the Sydney Theatre Company has had much success with the work of Andrew Upton, who has penned versions of the dramatic classics with much success here (adversely, his version of The Cherry Orchard, though a success here, was reviled at the National Theatre in London). It seems to stand as a test for aspiring dramatists; adapt Chekhov for non-Russian audience without losing the wit, charm, or cynicism of the original text. Virginia Plain’s has produced a new version at the Chippen St Theatre, written by the production’s director Victor Kalka; and unfortunately somewhere amongst the stellar performances and strikingly realistic production, something has been lost.
In his swansong, Chekhov presents the tensions of the new coming Russian society, hungry for change, and the old, revelling in their complacent ignorance. As a reflection of the contemporary Russian culture, the text shines and the mounting urgency as the characters are forced to reflect and move on leads to one of the great, bleak finales in the canon. Here, in an attempt to, revitalise the drama, Kalka has somewhat modernised the situation. The Characters speak somewhat colloquially and act like people would now, but the adaption is inconsistent. In one act they listen to music from the 1980’s and in another, characters remember the Great Emancipation of 1861. It’s just jarring enough to unfortunately rob the production of fully achieving the beautiful realism that it seems to be striving for. This unbalance is also present in the direction, moments of truth are weakened by moments by ingenuine stylism. Take for instance the party in Act 3. Characters tipsily dance, looking to distract themselves – this rings true; but then the dance morphs into something of a choreographed group routine – and the truth is gone, the audience has been robbed of the moment, and the scene loses its power. This is the kind of choice would be effective in German expressionism, but falls flat in Russian realism. This is frustrating to watch because under the awkward stylisation is a truly great production that hasn’t been allowed to reach its potential.
Beyond the text there are some spectacular performances here. Suzann James soars as the central matriarch Lyubov, bringing a poise and heartbreaking truth to her performance. As the central linchpin for the drama, she grounds the rest of the cast. Caitlin Williams and Dominque De Marco are both equally impressive as Lyubov’s daughter and adopted Daughter respectively; and Martin Bell also remains grounded and effective as the radical Peter, providing a keen contrast to the other characters' complacency. Martin Bell is poignant as Leonid, Lyubov’s brother; whilst other members of the cast seem slightly lost in the struggle of the text and production. For instance, Garreth Cruikshank gives a solid performance as the butler Firs, but his performance seems as if it would have been better suited to a more traditional production; it doesn’t really make sense that a modern family with severe financial troubles would retain a proper butler.
Technically the production was also truly effective. The small intimate space and tiny in-the-round audience afforded by the Chippen St Theatre allow the action to be staged realistically and the minimal set was stark enough to not get in the way of the drama and characters unfolding. The sound design was also impressive. The use of the surround speakers was utilized to remarkable effect and the music used, whilst unfortunately awkward at times due to the adaption, was executed smoothly.
There is a lot to be rightly commended in this production. Whilst it is unevenly adapted and that holds it back from being ultimately really satisfying, the performances (James' in particular) and production itself are impressive and worth viewing before it closes. There is some great work here, even in the adaption. Some of it just seems misplaced.
Photo Credit: Clare Hawley
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.