Sunday 2 November 2014

The Cherry Orchard

To the Young Vic for a matinee performance of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, directed by Katie Mitchell, a director I much admire.

Proscenium arch, a dimly lit single set (and the set was marvellous). Actors arrive on stage: quite a few of them, and in quick succession, and although I'm familiar with the play I'm already floundering. Who are these people? What's going on?

The problem was not simply one of audibility (the actors had their backs to the audience much of the time, which looked good but … ), it was also one of legibility. It was very difficult to 'place' the various characters as servants or landowners or bourgeoise professionals or wealthy arrivistes. They all looked and sounded pretty much the same and by the end of the play I was still floundering.

The only characters one could immediately 'get' were Leonid (a terrific performance by Angus Wright) and the student Peter Trofimov (channelling Jarvis Cocker a little too emphatically). Otherwise, despite good performances all round, one couldn't tell who these people were or why they mattered. I'm not saying (for example) that all stage doctors should sport stethoscopes but audiences need direction as much as actors. A landowner (for instance), however deep in debt, might dress like a landowner (and  not necessarily in a Barbour jacket carrying a shotgun).

Finally there was the dispiriting trademark of all recent Chekhov productions: I mean gratuitous nudity. To be told in a low voice by the ticket-checker on entering the auditorium that the production contains 'female nudity and swearing' (although the gender of the profanity was unspecified) is always a humiliating and infantilising experience for a ticket-holder, who is placed in the role of a punter in a a Soho clip-joint. One of these days I plan to call their bluff and, faced with such a warning, will leer like a lecherous Benny Hill and say "Phwooar! Fucking brilliant!"

In this case the nudity was confined to the eccentric governess Charlotta Ivanovna appearing briefly naked while saying something inaudible. I feel entitled to stamp and wolf-whistle the next time a naked dolly bird (or beefcake) scampers across the stage during a Chekhov production. And why not? I could even warn the ticket collector in advance that this is what I planned to do so it wouldn't come as too much of a shock to the cast. 

Here's a more serious point - given that this version (by Simon Stephens), in common with most Chekhov productions I've seen over the past few years, took many liberties (not all of them unjustified) with the original text, why bother to keep the Russian names or locations? Why not set the whole thing in the Home Counties? In the 1950s, say? Or in Mexico?

The best production of Chekhov I've ever seen was also, as it happens, at the Young Vic, directed by Benedict Andrews in 2012. This was a startlingly modernist Three Sisters, a radical modernisation of the original and the hooks went in. Set in the round, the acting area consisted of around 200 square tables which were removed by stage hands in the course of the play, so the space diminished as the characters' dreams faded and their lives inexorably shut down. Simple and effective, audible and legible. This is what Chekhov needs.

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