Every regular theatre goer has their blind spots, the playwrights that don’t just pass them by but they go out of their way to avoid. Civilian Theatre will happily spend an evening debating the merits of the musical or delivering a polemic against those who worship at the pedestal of Sarah Kane. However in the dark, locked away from public view, is a secret shame; a failure to comprehend, or even by interested in, the merits of turn of the century Russian naturalism.
Being aware that Chekov is, arguably, thought of as second-only to Shakespeare as a playwright and that the finest writers, dramatists and critics hold the likes of Tolstoy, Gorky and Dostoevsky in the highest regard only increases the sense of a personal failure. Add a disinterest in Dickens and Ibsen and the feeling there is a black hole in my cultural awareness grows.
This is not to deny the obvious talent on display; it is impossible, even if you don’t like them, not to respect Dickens’ sentences or Chekov’s details but appreciating the building blocks is a very different thing to admiring the final structure – take the ArelorMitttal Tower, it is certainly impressively constructed but that doesn’t stop it being a hideous eyesore that is nothing more than a well-captured Freudian representation of Boris Johnson’s ego.
Sticking with Freud, I suspect the problems spring from childhood – an A-Level interrogation of A Doll’s House through the lens of Stanislavski is enough to break the spirit of anyone. Task, Objective, Super Objective; it may be true, it may be necessary, it certainly sucks the spirit of the unknown out of theatre. It went in hand-in-hand with experiencing a lifeless, long and boring production of Gorky’s Summerfolk at the National (although seeing the cast included Roger Allam, Patricia Hodge and Simon Russell-Beale, I am willing to concede the problem may have been with this particular reviewer).
Whether the production was good or not, it came at one of those moments you only later realise was ‘formative’. In the same year I saw Complicite’s Mnemonic and a revival of Steven Berkoff’s East – how could a staid, hundred year old drama possibly compete with the vitality of Berkoff or a company showing an impressionable young mind all that theatre could be.
Over the years I have treaded carefully – a production of Hedda Gabler here, a Muppet’s Christmas Carol there. I have discovered that any criticisms I have of Ibsen’s naturalism pale into comparison against those of his epic plays; Peer Gynt and Emperor and Galilean being two of the more trying theatrical experiences I have endured.
Still having persevered and, entering my thirties, I find there is perhaps a chink of light ahead. Two impressive productions of Enemy of the People have rejuvenated interest in Ibsen, a long conversation with a Hungarian cast new light on Chekov and Katie Mitchell’s last foray into naturalism was the marvellous reimagining of Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
And, rather circuitously, we arrive back at the Young Vic to a Katie Mitchell directed, Simon Stephens translated, production of The Cherry Orchard. It is the last of Chekov’s big four for Mitchell to take on and, interestingly, when the opportunity came up before she didn’t feel ready to direct. The Cherry Orchard is not a play you approach lightly, Chekov paints his characters with such fine layers of detail that one needs a master’s eye before one can hope to capture this richness for the stage.
The production has received a cool reception from the critics. Certainly no-one is saying it is terrible but there is a general agreement that in Stephens’ version the comedy has been lost and the reduced running time has been criticised for losing Lyubov Ranevskaya’s intensity and artificially rebalancing the relationships across the ensemble.
I remain ambivalent about Simon Stephens as a playwright; his Three Kingdoms was overegged in places and Birdland an over-hyped disappointment. However he does appear to be an interesting and versatile adaptor, with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and A Doll’s House winning acclaim.
Working from English translations rather than the original Russian, the result should be called adaptation rather than translation. The 120 minute running time suggests it is not a faithful recreation as least 30 minutes have been lopped off the play. This may offend the purists but Stephens’ cogent defence is that theatre conventions have changed and Chekov’s writing would have been influenced the 40 minute breaks between Acts – as apparently was standard in Russian theatre at the time.
It is not unreasonable to agree with Stephens’ assertion that writing conventions dictated by function can be amended to reflect modernity. Theatre is moving away from the interval; Electra, Enemy of the People, Henry IV and now The Cherry Orchard. These plays cover the development of drama for an English audience. Each recently ran through without an interval. Theatre is changing. And how plays are performed must adapt.
Having never previously seen The Cherry Orchard it is impossible to argue the fidelity of the piece. However it does also allow the privilege of seeing the production with fresh eyes, and in this light the play worked very well. I felt I had seen a full play, and I am not sure if I would have wanted to watch another half hour of action. Chekov writes ensemble plays and Stephens’ has captured this spirit; the reduction of Ranevskaya has led to the servants and students coming into the foreground. This is not just a play about loss and change, it can also be about those who gain from the changing world; by the end Lopakhin, Yepikhodov and Yasha all advance, even Peter Trofimov in his defiant, austere poverty seems to have grown in stature as the world comes to meet him.
Katie Mitchell’s direction echoes the constant movement of characters in life by creating a seemingly endless procession on stage. Characters sweep in on mass and pass across the stage to exit by another door, there is a hustle and bustle to activity that suggests a busy train station and is symbolic of the inevitable development that overshadows all action and eventually consumes their cherry orchard.
For a Mitchell production the direction is quite restrained. She holds back but cannot completely deny the studied naturalism. Her characters often face entirely away from the audience when delivering lines, and low level lighting often obscures characters faces. The reasoning behind this deliberate directorial decision is hard to discern. It may be to create the idea of Ranevskaya existing in a shadow world, neither committing to the real but unable to leave within her imagination; it is only once Lopakhin buys the estate that natural light seems to break into her reality.
In Stephens’ version it is hard to sympathise with Ranevskaya and Leonid because they such feckless individuals. The ancestral grandeur has faded as badly as the dilapidated house they are living in, Lopakhin provides a solution to their problems but they cannot accept the reality of the situation and chose to exist instead in a fantasy world. These are not characters particularly deserving of sympathy and there is even a certain distaste at the way Leonid ends the play with a job in a bank – such an incompetent is certainly not fit for the position but it is implied the old-boys network saw him right in the end.
This seems a real and relevant way to read The Cherry Orchard in the 21st century. Chekov should be considered great if his plays can bend to provide meaning to a very different world to the one he was writing in. A modern audience should not be forced to buy into the values of the past and, if this collaboration between Mitchell and Stephens doesn’t hit every note, there is enough in it to make it palatable to a new generation of Theatre Studies students.