STAN is not short for Stanislavski but Stop Thinking About Names, a Belgian theatre company founded in the 1980s dedicated to classic and modern work. I attended last Saturday’s performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin, part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Anton Chekhov has to be the most humane and moving writer we have been privileged to have as part of the human race. His exploration of the passing of Time, the difficulty of change and transition for everyone, how our hopes and dreams so often jar with the circumstances of our lives, be they personal or political, is sublime. If anyone helps you understand the human condition, it’s him.
I notice that the production is having its premiere at the festival. Hopefully this is the
start of a journey. In the programme notes it says that their performances are not a result or a finished product but “an invitation to engage with an ongoing dialogue”. That is what I am trying to do here. This is not a ‘review’ but a series of observations and questions about making classics moving and relevant for now. It is also about what we believe is the role of the director.
The set and style of the production reminded me of watching a reasonably good rehearsal runthrough. The set and studiously haphazard costume got me into this atmosphere right away. I was not averse to this; some of the best things happen in rehearsal as any theatre worker will tell you. I rather liked it initially. However, it is a style now, a formula. Someone comes to the front and says “ok we are starting now,” smiles at the audience and we slide into the play. This approach was fresh and new once but, for me, not any more. And rather than an ‘approach’ perhaps I should call it a ‘style’ because it did not seem to have, for the most part , the spontaneity it claimed to espouse.
Unsurprisingly, I discovered on reading the programme that the show was directed by the company. At any rate there seems to be no director listed. This was utterly apparent. Whilst I am all for people exploring work without a director there are definite pitfalls. Tell tale signs in this production included: actors crossing the stage at the back, pulling focus, destroying atmosphere in the space during scenes which were being quite well acted, a marked differentiation in acting level and style, a sense of no one really having a sense of where the piece was going, a lack of cohesion as to how they felt as a group about the whole theme of the play. I felt there were many great ideas not fully explored or really taken to their limit – ideas and feelings about the subject matter that is, not the style.
In ‘The Empty Space’ where Peter Brook discusses the role of director, he says:
“Without leadership a group cannot reach a coherent result within a given time. A director is not free of responsibility – he is totally responsible – but he is not free of the process either. He is part of it. Every now and then an actor turns up who proclaims that directors are unnecessary: actors could do it by themselves. This may be true. But what actors? For actors to develop something alone, they would need to be creatures so highly developed that they would hardly need to rehearse together….” BROOK THE EMPTY SPACE (1968)
I did however enjoy some of the generally relaxed connection to the audience,
not usual in productions of this play, a kind of Shakespearean connection. The company feels this is an important mark of their work, as it says in the piece about them at the back of the programme. One or two of the actors, particularly the actor playing Firs and Yepikodov, who set up this connection at the beginning, frequently pulled focus by changing gels and moving furniture at the beginning whilst scenes were happening in what was for me a totally pointless and ineffective manner.
I suppose what follows on from this style is a decision to say: “we are not the characters and we do not want you to think we are, so we will make no effort to become them. We will commit ourselves to the idea we are actors and not play with this polarity.” This decision, which I take it is the company style, whilst it has some novelty value and can occasionally uncover some more modern immediate truth, also presents problems. Fir’s final moments in the play seemed pretty meaningless to me in that he played just himself, and not the old retainer. My feeling is that when you throw out the fact that he is an old man, you are throwing out one of the most important things about him.
Only in sections were the themes and atmospheres really captured. For example, Trofimov’s philosophising in Act 2, where all the characters listened to him railing against them and Pishchik’s windfall in Act 4 [ wonderfully played by Bert Haelvoet] was another
wonderful section. But there were not enough of these moments for me. Quirky giggles and modern responses do not make for realism or connection. Eccentricity is not depth.
Something I thought was wonderful though was the dancing. In Act 3 as the cherry orchard is being auctioned off, there is a dance held at the house. The music they used was modern dance music. Behind the movable screen which maðe up the set, the rich family, their servants, dependants and hangers-on danced the night away, emerging into the main space to have their scenes.
I loved this; it connected me to the play in a way most of their acting could not; it made me feel the whole notion of civilised society dancing its way towards chaos; of privileged people hanging on for grim death to a life where they can do as they please only to discover, that even for them, time marches on. For me, it is what is happening right now in the world.
What would it have taken to make this production moving and meaningful for me overall? Not much. More focus. Less anarchy with the costumes. More care with the cross casting. A little more acknowledgement of character rather than the rather tiresome ‘Brechtian’ cleverness which yielded little to me of the humanity of this amazing play. An understanding that everyone in the audience will not necessarily know the play. Some more direction which focussed the action and atmosphere.
This does not mean I want the play presented in a traditional way; I simply craved more depth.
On that point of depth; I attended a summer school run by Michael Chekhov Europe in Zurich a few years ago. All the people in the group I was in were advanced professional performers and teachers from Europe and America, already with loads of experience in Chekhov Technique (Michael, that is). We worked on The Cherry Orchard. Many scenes I saw that week were modern, moving, revelatory, spontaneous and extraordinary. Many had that depth of which i am speaking.
That’s what I want and what speaks to me.