Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Cherry Orchard, Melbourne Theatre Company

Simon Stone is the current face of "young Australian Theatre" - he's 29 and has had a meteoric rise to the top of Australian theatre, largely through his productions of classics (signature productions include "Death of a Salesman", "The Wild Duck" and "Thysestes") - starting out at the fringe with the Hayloft project and expanding to acclaimed productions for the big state theatre companies. He's controversial, however, as his approach to classics often tends to de-scale a lot of the accreted assumptions about them (he came notably unstuck when his production of "Salesman" cut the epilogue and the Arthur Miller estate insisted on it being returned) and to return these plays to being active stories told now - with the actors using their own accents, in settings and costumes that appear largely contemporary, and often with sets that are pared back to just a few bare essentials.

His latest, "The Cherry Orchard" is, of course, an adaptation of the Chekhov. I was a late bloomer to Chekhov - his four iconic plays are all largely apparently-plotless stories where the real drama is internal and the key is in the details, And I often wondered, why should I care about these wealthy Russians paying the price of their own feckless living? I've started to come around to him - largely due to stagings that start to take away the remote, "english country house" interpretations of his work - Benedict Andrew's "The Seagull" a few years ago ripped the bandages off my eyes and showed me a play that had ridiculous numbers of telling details hidden just below the surface... and Simon Stone's "The Cherry Orchard" does the same. A ridiculously strong cast brings these complex, flawed characters to perfect life.

One of the keys may be that this respects Chekhov's instruction that the play is a comedy. There's the melencholy, true, but it's not an all-pervasive gloom. And this doesn't come at the expense of the characters, if anything it enhances it. And there are intriguing alternate interpretations that arise - for every Pamela Rabe's Ranevskaya (who perfectly captures her character's over-emotional nature), you get something like Robert Menzies' Gayev (who transforms a charracter who is often portrayed as an amiable, mildy eccentric duffer into something far sadder and funnier, a socially inept, shellshocked man still trying to function in society without fully understanding how it's supposed to work). Steve Mouzakhis' Lopakin is probably the most obvious modification of a character - instead of the russian peasant-made good, we get a second-generation Greek boy who's caught between his knowledge of what has to change and his affection for these people. It's a case where the modification brings us a more direct insight into the character - rather than having to diagram out the social norms of Russian peasantry, we know immediately where people are coming from and can then proceed to engage with them on their own terms.

This is an unusually grand staging for Stone - the full width and height of the Sumner stage is engaged and it's used well, using the distances between characters carefully to capture important emotional information. And the show delivers in doing what Chekhov is supposed to - engage the mind, amuse the wit and break the heart a little.

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