Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

on lions, stones, cherry orchards and pig-headed cluelessness

I’ve had a couple of requests for a response Simon Stone’s The Cherry Orchard so here it is in all its ramblingness. Be warned: this is long and contains many colourful tangents. Again, I want to stress that this is not a review. It is a response to the work.  Can I start with a quick story? I promise to tie it in beautifully somewhere near the end of my review. Okay. So you probably know this tale – or part of it – but this is what I was thinking about in the interval of Simon Stone’s The Cherry Orchard. I was thinking about a lioness named ‘Elsa’. That song – Born Free – that was the theme tune for her ‘biopic’ of the same name. Her mother was shot and killed when she charged game warden, George Adamson in Kenya. The cubs were adopted by Adamson and raised by his wife, Joy. Elsa was trained to hunt by dragging slaughtered goats behind a jeep and, in time, she returned to the wild, had cubs of her own and then (and this was what justified a movie) brought them back to meet her human foster parents.

The story did not have a happy ending. Elsa died of a tick bite in 1961. One of her cubs killed an English tourist and was shot and killed by another game warden. Another cub, tamed for the purpose of performing in the film, killed George Adamson’s assistant and was also killed. Joy Adamson was murdered by a local boy in 1980 (it is presumed this was retaliation for her constant, sneering racism and imperious commands) and her husband was murdered by poachers nine years later. Theirs was a story of hope and freedom characterized by death and violence. In attempting to tame Africa and Elsa, they only alienated themselves. The county they had de-fanged proved that it still had claws. elsageorge

“Your grandfather, your great grandfather and all your ancestors owned slaves – they owned living souls. Can’t you see the human faces gazing at your from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every trunk? Can’t you hear their voices? … You are living in debt, at other people’s expense, at the expense of people you don’t admit further than the kitchen.” Trofimov, Act II, The Cherry Orchard

Simon Stone’s Cherry Orchard (after Chekhov) is everything I want in an adaption: it is completely of its times, perfectly attuned to its contemporary audience whilst still retaining the flavor of its original context. It is the most faithful the notorious Simon Stone has ever been. It actually show’s Stone’s love and respect for the author in a very tangible way: while the text is entirely new, (developed in the room by director and cast) Stone could not cut a single entrance or exit, Chekhov’s plot proving too tight and too intricate to be meddled with. Coming from the man who had no trouble changing the end of Death Of A Salesman, (morally or artistically speaking; legal difficulty is a different matter) this admission is uncharacteristic, to say the least. Stone speaks frequently of his loyalty being to his audience and to entertainment rather than to the playwright. As both a playwright and a director, I truly respect him for owning this. However, his newfound reverence suits him and I hope he continues to explore the joys that come with respecting the original text. I look forward to seeing an era of Stone’s work where his considers loyalty to audience and the playwright’s intention as mutually beneficial.

Since you can’t write about Simon Stone without a nod to the so-called ‘adaptation debate’, this is my half-hearted nod. Feel free to skip it. Barely any Australian theatre-makers believe that such a ‘debate’ exists. It seems to have been conducted entirely in the media rather than in the theatre community. This idea that the Australian playwright is under-threat is hard to credit when you consider how many times the Australian playwright has been ‘threatened’ in the past twenty years. We were ‘threatened’ when people began writing plays not set in Australia. We were ‘threatened’ when Play Box became The Malthouse and now we are ‘threatened’ by a scruffy young guy re-voicing the classics. I believe we are made of hardier stuff than that. One of the first year students asked me about the ‘by Simon Stone after Chekhov’ issue and yes, it does make me roll my eyes but it does raise interesting questions about when does Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard cease to be Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. When not a single word is what the author wrote? We crossed that threshold when it was first translated and Stone is loyal to character and plot.

Stone often references how stories like King Lear were myths before Shakespeare wrote them down but the play itself is Shakespeare’s and no one could dispute that. What I gather from interviews is that Stone believes these big famous stories become our inherited mythology quite quickly and are therefore up for pilfering. Barely more than one hundred years old, it is already part of our collective unconsciousness. According to Stone. Back to the show. cherry

Much of the joy I derived from this production was in its pace. From the audience’s perspective, things are constantly happening. There is always something to watch and a relationship to crumble. For the characters, however, time passes slowly. Leisurely. Unhurried. Like a child’s summer holiday. There is something sickening in the family’s total disregard for time and the pressing urgencies of their situation. As the seasons rolled past, I found myself longing for a giant hand of God to descend from the sky and slap the whole tribe on their airy heads. If someone would only take charge, everything could be solved, or at least eased! Only the nouveau riche, immigrant Lopakhin is able to propose any solutions and all his offers of aid are ignored. This frustration is incredibly loyal to the original text. No amount of 80s haircuts or Australian accents could change the feeling of inevitable but preventable doom that hangs over the proceedings.

The family is disconnected not only from urgency but also from the realities of the world around them. This is perfectly exemplified by Trofimov’s famous speech in act II, when he waxes lyrical about the nature of humanity, pride and death. Here it is delivered as he fills an inflatable paddling pool. Anya frolics (it is really the only word to describe it) under the stream of the hose. The pool struck me as symbolic of the family’s collective infantilism both in the face of sound financial advice and wider philosophical musings about the world and humanity. However, Trofimov is no more the voice of wisdom than Anya; he is holding the hose, filling their pool. He enables. His words fall with the water and are splashed about. Made trivial. Just another party trick. The world’s problems will not be solved. Solutions will not be found in this pool. MTC THE CHERRY ORCHARD photo JEFF BUSBY_1444

I must make mention of the casting of the outstanding Zahra Newman as Varya, the only capable member of this ridiculous clan. (Even the usually practical Lopakhin crumbles and fails her when it comes to the long expected marriage proposal and her silent screams as the curtain descends on Act One embodied my own exasperation brought on by the stagnancy of play’s world.) This was a very Anglo ensemble and in casting a black actress as Varya, the step-daughter and portraying Lopakhin as a European immigrant, the production reeked of colonialism. This brings me back to Elsa and why I was thinking about her in the interval. Elsa’s story exemplifies colonialism.

Joy Adamson wrote of the triumph of this cross-species bond whilst she and her husband systematically isolated themselves from their fellow humans. This was their downfall. The Adamsons and the Ranevskaya’s, lived in a state of disconnect from the realities of the world around them. They were products of a times long past. Times when being rich (or white) erased the sins of cluelessness, unrealisable idealism and entitlement. But Chekhov and history prove that reality catches up with even the most determinedly clueless: the lion will attack. The people will fight back. The Cherry Orchard will be sold. Good riddance.

Did I tie it in? Apologies if not. Maybe I just wanted to tell the story of a lion after all. This could have been a much shorter post if I’d just gone with that. 

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