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The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard
Writer: Anton Chekhov
Director: Eamon Flack
Belvoir Street Theatre
May 29 – June 27, 2021

The uppermost theme of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is not merely large-scale change but how to adjust to a change that is already in the process of taking place. Consequently Eamon Flack’s up-dated, thought-provoking and up-beat adaptation and staging of Chekhov’s much-loved play has much of importance to offer to our present, uncertain times.

The cherry orchard, to which its impoverished and extravagantly emotional owner Luba Ranavkaya (Pamela Rabe) returns after three years in Paris, is rich in referentials. Uppermost it is a symbol of childhood happiness for Luba, of the estate’s past usefulness and productivity to elderly servant and former serf, Firs (an impressive Peter Carroll), of financial investment in the future for businessman Lopahkin (Madela Mathia), and for the sweet Anya (Kisty Marillier), the 17-year-old daughter of Luba, it is not as meaningful as it used to be.

Anya is much influenced by the passionate views of an intense young woman, the intellectual Petya (Priscilla Doueihy), with whom she falls in love. “Don’t you see human beings gazing at you from every cherry tree in the orchard?” Petya asks Anya, referring to the “living souls” owned by Anya’s forefathers. She condemns the inherited attitude that has made Anya’s family oblivious to their present reality – maintaining their lifestyle through debt to people they regard as their inferiors. Petya’s words ring ominously in our ears … “we must first atone for our past, and be finished with it”.

It is not easy to finish with the past. One of those from whom Luba recklessly borrows money to maintain the decaying estate is Lopahkin who remembers her when as a 15-year-old boy she bathed his face after his father hit him saying, “don’t cry little peasant”. Now he’s rich but still convinced of his inferiority illustrating the long-term effects of a system based upon the allocated superiority of one group over another. It destroys personal happiness in that neither he nor Varya (Nadie Kammellaweera), Luba’s adopted child of a peasant mother, have the confidence to express their love.

Despite the fact that Lopahkin generously offers Luba the opportunity to solve the estate’s debt by developing the cherry orchard herself, she and her idle, garrulous and wheelchair-bound brother, Gaev (Keith Robinson) refuse it as “vulgar”. To Lopahkin, they are “feckless” people who don’t seem to understand their own situation, however, they do, but are reluctant to let go of something beautiful although no longer  tenable. Unable to face the loss of the orchard yet unable to take the step that would prevent it, Luba throws a party as the orchard is auctioned. While this provides an opportunity for some jazzy on-stage fun, it also highlights Luba’s decline. Her servants barely respect her and she hardly seems to be aware of the mockery of a former governess, the sharp-witted Charlotta (Lucia Mastrantone).

The stage setting (Romanie Harper) is admirably designed. We see a collection of odd characters bound by their co-existence in the declining days of a rural estate adrift on a raft (nicely suggested by the carpet on which they gather) but who seldom really connect. The wanna-be sophisticate Yasha (Charles Wu) who has accompanied Luba to Paris, and with whom the maid Dunyasha (Sarah Meacham) falls in love rejecting her unglamorous suitor, bumbling estate accountant Yepikodov (Jack Scott), are a little play in themselves. They are joined by the very amusing Charlotta, who has no place in any world but the one she makes for herself, and an absurdly optimistic landowner, Pishchick (Josh Price), who believes that something will always turn up to pay the rent on his mortgaged estate.

This daring production plays their pettiness, silliness and vanities for laughs, and there are many extremely funny moments, but we also see them against a wide featureless backdrop, conveying their lack of certainty about where they belong in the new order. Anya believes perhaps that a “new wonderful world will open up” but there is no certainty of that, and there is no certainty that the sporadic kindness shown by characters can be relied upon as the loyal Firs is left behind to the audience’s manifest concern.

The characters are all, literally, actors in a much larger and far-reaching historic change over which they have no other control than to remember it truthfully for the future. The painting of the cherry orchard packed into its storage case has pink blossoms – rose-coloured perhaps – whereas we are told both by Luba and Anya the blossoms are white.

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theatre@ssh.com.au

 

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