It’s a director’s job to make theatre, but it’s an artistic director’s job to know who that theatre is being made for. So it’s telling that Belvoir’s AD Eamon Flack has chosen to ditch any breathless reverence to tradition in his raucous sitcom-esque reboot of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. This is a production clearly geared towards accessibility and easy appeal, but that’s not to say that Flack is guilty of pandering. It also aims to give a stalwart of the canon a far clearer relevance to the now. And it largely manages to achieve this transplant into the 21st century without significantly deviating from Chekhov’s century-old story.
Chekhov, done badly, or at least too self-consciously, can be unforgivably dull. That’s certainly not a shortcoming that could be pinned on this dynamic interpretation. But this production nonetheless begs the question: is such a bold and at times radical reframing of a work so dependent on quiet, hushed, internalised complexity capable of telling the same story? Does a cherry by any other name still taste as sweet?
Usually set on a rural estate in Russia, here we find ourselves, as per Flack’s director’s notes, in “Rushia”, a land free of any historical or cultural baggage. After five years in Paris, ignoring her family’s dwindling finances, Lubov Ranevskaya (the inimitable Pamela Rabe) has returned to her ancestral estate, famed for its sprawling cherry orchard. It is the final vestige of her family’s once envied wealth, but is now mortgaged to the hilt. So this country pile is set to be auctioned off. It’s a cruel comeuppance for Lubov, her brother Gaev (Keith Robinson, Twelfth Night), and her children Anya (Kirsty Marillier, Home, I’m Darling) and Varya (Nadie Kammallaweera, Counting and Cracking). This place is not merely bricks and mortar, but a reliquary for generations of memories and a monument to an era when the strata of civilisation were fixed and immovable. Now, this is all about to change. A new century is upon them, and new ideas are finding a footing. Society is upwardly mobile, and those who try to resist this progress are fated to be left behind.
Theatre pedants will no doubt wince at some of the liberties taken with the source material. Indeed, there are moments when the tone of this production loses any logic, comedic or otherwise. However, Flack's The Cherry Orchard does, to some extent at least, pay homage to the playwright’s intentions for his final work. Chekhov wanted his tale of an affluent Russian family’s financial ruin to be experienced as a comedy, although it’s unlikely he ever imagined it played for laughs with quite the brand of shtick Flack opts for. Far from offering the careful equilibrium of humour and melancholy that is such a hallmark of Chekhov’s plays, Flack pushes a subtlety-free OTT surrealism in his portrayal of cashed-up cluelessness – think Absolutely Fabulous does Moscow.
Exchanging the delicate nuance of Chekhov’s bittersweet comedy for such bombastic clowning is a big choice, and one that could easily obliterate this play’s fine detail were it not for the powers of an extraordinary cast. Far from trying to conjure a naturalist snapshot of early 20th-century Russia, the characters have been given to the actors who best inhabit their essence, regardless of their identity, gender or race. This shines a revealing new light on the central theme of a world rapidly changing its ideals. Casting student and progressive polemist Trofimov as a woman, played by Priscilla Doueihy (44 Sex Acts in One Week), gives the defiant romance she shares with Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya (Marillier) a refreshing queer spin. Mandela Mathia (Sami in Paradise), as the former peasant turned wealthy entrepreneur Lopahkin, gives profound potency to a character who was born the son of a serf or, as it is repositioned here, the son of a slave.
Rabe’s account of Ranevskaya is an astonishing display of dramatic gymnastics. Second by second, she turns on a knife's edge from deadpan zinger to gesticulatory slapstick to devastating pathos. She can play to the crowd with wukka-wukka punchlines and yet, at the same time, summon a level of emotional truth that gives substance and empathy to this deeply flawed, impulsive, yet compassionate and vulnerable character. She is, perhaps, a more bolshy, less desperate Ranevskaya than is generally expected, but within such an amped-up mode of storytelling, Rabe pitches a shade of chaos that fits this show's vibrant palette perfectly.
For those who aren’t already familiar with the play, Flack has crafted an evening that delivers entertainment in spades. But it’s unlikely to persuade those who prefer to see their classics done a little more conservatively. There’s a wistful irony that Chekhov’s play about the future riding roughshod over the past seems to echo Flack’s determination to leapfrog much of The Cherry Orchard’s accepted conventions. Much like the work’s uncertain conclusion, it remains to be seen if all this progress is better than what came before.
You can see The Cherry Orchard at Belvoir until June 27.