After working recently with the same translation of this play in a post graduate class I was struck again by the wonder of Anton Chekhov’s plays, as I always am. When I was introduced to the Three Sisters in my very first year of drama school, the teacher’s love and enthusiasm was something I have kept with me ever since. So I went with a group of students to the production of The Cherry Orchard by Druid Theatre. It was very enjoyable and educational as my students and I had a good twenty/thirty minutes afterwards discussing the production of a play we had studied practically on our feet in acting class last semester.
Chekhov’s plays are not realistic, they only appear to be. When played totally realistically the characters appear aimless and merely stupid. But these plays are poems that appear to be plays. In actual fact all the characters are being torn apart and what is so powerful about the plays is that everyone has these polarities within them. if the actors do not play these conflicts fully then the play seems pointless. The Cherry Orchard becomes a long play about selling a house (as my partner remarked on the drive home).
Everyone is pulled in many directions from the beginning. Lopahkin is conflicted because he really wants to help Lyubov. He owes her; she saved him from a difficult childhood. This is in the script, not something I imagined. It is an extremely frustrating position for him; part of him is hungry to buy the orchard and part of him feels he is not worthy. In his big speech this should tear him apart. He is drunk and when you are drunk things come out. His big speech gives ample opportunity to explore this and reveal more of the character. Lyubov, in her turn, is selfish, manipulative and confused but as maddening as she is, she has at her heart the idea that she is a terrible mother and deserves to be punished. (there are other places you can go with this but that’s a good engine). Is not perhaps her constant profligacy to give away money a way of showing how generous and guilt-ridden she is? Yasha is not just a kind of upwardly mobile cruel servant but someone who feels the pull of his peasant background and is rebelling against it. There is a wonderful scene in the play where Yasha is left alone with Lyubov for a moment and he begs her to take him with her back to Paris. This is a very short scene but for Yasha’s character it is crucial and I feel I want to see his desperation. Petya, the student, shows many signs of political dilettante behaviour in the play but his ‘The whole of Russia is our orchard’ speech has to lift us to counteract his immature behaviour later. For that moment I as an audience member really have to feel that the world can change. What I am saying here is that everyone in this play has a lot at stake and without that, nothing can happen and the play is just a lot of silly people struggling.
Additionally all the characters have to have a journey because at first glance, the production will not have a trajectory other than, as I say, the house is sold. Having said that, there were several excellent performances. I especially liked Varya (Siobhan Cullen), Firs (John Olohan), Carlotta (Helen Norton) , Pischik(Garrett Lombard) and especially Gayev(Rory Nolan); they impressed me a lot but good acting (as much as actors might believe it) cannot provide this feeling of the Whole (another Michael Chekhov term) by themselves.
All plays need atmosphere but Chekhov’s plays especially. Despite some beautifully atmospheric scene changes I longed for more in the scenes themselves, because the intangible sense of atmosphere as explored by Anton’s genius nephew, the teacher/actor/director Michael Chekhov is one of the most important things that actors (not just designers and lighting designers) have to create and work with. The atmosphere also unites the cast even when the characters do not respond to it in the same way. I remember well in our acting class (and I am not trying to compare a professional production with a class – I am simply giving an example) the atmosphere of the nursery, invading the consciousness of all the characters who entered that room after their journey and most particularly Anya and Lyubov the two characters to whom it mattered most.
On a more practical note, acoustically there are a lot of problems in the Black Box, where the play was performed. It is a large cavernous space. I know these problems, because with my touring company Theatrecorp I did seven productions in there. Any attempt to speak to the wings or upstage means you need a lot of breath and one or two people were inaudible. It is also important to note that with a very wide stage space even those who sit at the front stage left are almost as far away as those at the back of the auditorium if you are speaking from stage right.