The Cherry Orchard – O’Reilly Hall – Review – DTF

The Cherry Orchard image credit Koen Broos 800x400

The Cherry Orchard – Stan Theatre Group at O’Reilly Hall, Belvdere College – Review by P. McGovern

Dates – Oct 7 – 10

Their programme note tells us that STAN theatre group think a lot about theatre. Their poster blurb proclaims it “the most thought-through” staging that some critic had seen. Perhaps the play is more thought through than thought into. It deliberately distances the audience from any real emotional involvement in the action and seems to serve the thinkers’ thinking more than the playwright’s intention. Sparkling flares, deliberately noisy stage “accidents”, Gayev changing filters on a flood light in the “wings” while gesturing comically to the audience, broad slapstick . . . The production goes for brash where Chekhov is brittle, it substitutes daring for delicacy and frantic activity where stillness would be so much more effective. Chekhov famously insisted that “people are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created or their lives are being torn apart”. He trusted the subtlety of his writing and left it to the skill of actors and the intelligence of audiences after that. While innovation and reinterpretation can save a play from becoming an untouchable museum piece they should hardly jar with the author’s intentions as bluntly as this production seems to do.

The play is set at a time of great social and political change in Russia. The decline of the big house and its great estate symbolised a world tilting on its axis, changing lives and landscapes forever. The balls that were attended by generals and barons, are now peopled with post office clerks and station masters. The central character, Lyubov, was born in the house, her father and grandfather too. Her son was drowned in the estate’s river. She feels that if she loses it she would be as well off dead. Yet, when she is told not to weep, one wonders why, as she shows not the least inclination to do so. There is an identical moment involving her daughter, Anya, so clearly this contradiction between emotion and the text is deliberate.

When Lyubov tells us that she spends money like a madwoman, she is referring to her profligacy – it is not about madness though one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise from her truculence and frequently manic behaviour. At the ball (here a disco) she is dressed in black bra and panties under a see-through dress. In case we have missed the point (presumably there is one), she tucks her hem into her knickers and rushes to throw herself at Trofimov, wrapping her legs around his waist and swinging wildly. Moments later she is literally upside down, glued to another dancer. Dancing at Lubakhov’s, the Nite Klubb? OK.

Minutes later comes one of those typical, heartbreaking Chekovian moments as Anya and her mother steel themselves for their final departure. Anya, sharing her mother’s propensity for self-delusion speaks of planting “a new garden, finer than this”. However, Lyubov’s frenetic wanton dance in the previous scene does little to help our suspension of disbelief. As Anya takes a final look at her “dear, dear house”, the mood is shattered by loud calls and shrill whistles from members of the cast now come among the audience.

The central set consists of two extended table-type platforms, on which actors often sit or stand, accessed by freestanding stools or chairs. Perhaps due to inadequate rehearsal time, actors have to watch their step as they mount or descend. It is awkward and questionable in its purpose. Lighting design is excellent – a battery of flood lights off the playing area, sometimes reflecting from silver-coated panels overhead, suggesting mornings evening and moonlight equally effectively. There are some fine actors (not identified individually) and many moments of interest and exciting theatre making in this production, but finally they are achieved at the cost of what a playgoer might reasonably expect from what is billed as Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

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