It has been six years since the cherry orchard witnessed the deaths of a father and son and now the matriarch has finally returned. But Ranevskaya brings back with her the family debts and denial. One of Anton Chekhov’s most beloved plays, the Cherry Orchard is charged with reconciliation, regret, and the unstoppable waves of change.
When Ranevskaya (Pamela Rabe) returns to Russia from Paris with her devoted brother Gaev (Keith Robinson) and daughter Anya (Kirsty Marillier), they are greeted by their dishevelled house and the reality of their financial situation. Local businessman Lopahkin (Mandela Mathia) does his best to convince them to sell off the orchard to recoup some of their debts but the advice falls on deaf ears. At the same time, other daughter Varya (Nadine Kammallaweera) is at her wit’s end, tutor Petya (Priscilla Doueihy) is fed up with humanity and spouts philosophy, and the house’s surrounding dependents Charlotta (Lucia Mastrantone), Dunyasha (Sarah Meacham), Yasha (Charles Wu), and Firs (Peter Carroll) are growing fearful for their future connected to this fading family.
The adaptation and direction by Eamon Flack captured some of the intended comedy of Chekhov’s script with the family’s many eccentricities, their sprawling leisure hours, and the comic hangers-on characters Yepikhodov (Jack Scott) and Pishchick (Josh Price). The play’s other concerns like family legacy and the unrelenting passage of time were represented more convincingly in the production design from Stefan Gregory’s cheerful springtime composition and sound design to the lighting by Nick Schlieper that cast the house in crisp winter light.
In particular, Romanie Harper’s set design with an expansive green chalkboard wall butting against an equally expansive sheer curtain brought together the two textures and their connotations of impression and transparency, metaphors for the family’s positioning in time. In the pivotal party scene, Harper’s design came to the fore with the characters tracing themselves onto the chalkboard, desperate to leave even a semblance of themselves pressed into the hundreds-years-old wall. This scene also provided key examples of the costume design, also from Harper, which struck a naturally eclectic chord, mixing traditional formal wear for the staff with the family’s otherwise modern wear for a recognisable, off-kilter, hodge-podge aesthetic.
The cast was equally eclectic including some Australian veterans, Belvoir regulars, and emerging talents. At the centre was Rabe, the spinning, spiralling vortex of energy. As Ranevskaya she had the power to wilfully drag attention from across the stage but, especially with the loving support of her family, Rabe made the matriarch silly and overly-generous rather than petulant. Robinson additionally stood out for his good-humoured portrayal of Gaev whereas Carroll stole audience hearts as a doddery Firs shuffling from scene to scene. These three formed the serious, burdened backbone of the production, which allowed the younger characters to flit about with flings and idle musings. In this regard, the sweet, dreamy coupling of Doueihy and Marillier contrasted with the sharp, sarcastic Wu and Meacham for a variety of tonal trysts.
Despite the attention to detail in design and performance, Flack’s production of this early 20th-century classic couldn’t seem to escape the contextual gap between then and now. Globalisation and the climate crisis have undermined two of the key elements of Chekhov’s story in the sense that most people don’t have a singular family home they can return to generation after generation anymore and the looming threat of climate disaster makes the notion of a legacy a rather dubious one. So, through which lens can the Cherry Orchard be viewed in order for it to resonate with contemporary audiences? Perhaps older generations will recognise their nostalgia for childhoods of happiness and prosperity but the same is unlikely for those who grew up through the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 or those currently growing up with “unprecedented” natural disasters every year and a global pandemic which has killed over 3 million people and from which the world may never recover. Without a recognisable framework to hold up the world and the characters of the Cherry Orchard, the central feelings of loss were hollowed out.
However, the casting of Mathia as Lopahkin is a clear attempt to add an overtone of racial politics and a discussion of power dynamics as a Black peasant-turned-businessman buys the land from under the wealthy white family. And, yet, the sombre reception of this news maintained audience alliance and empathy with Ranevskaya and Gaev. Thus, the arc of the fall of the aristocratic family was poignant rather than revolutionary and their hollow sorrow remained the emotional locus of the production.
If the Cherry Orchard is about the futile attempt to stem the flows of time, then this production can’t be said to welcome meaningful change but, instead, it asks us to mourn the loss of times past.
The Cherry Orchard is running at Belvoir from May 29th – June 27th
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