The Cherry Orchard
16/11/2023 - 11/11/2023
Playwright - Anton Chekhov
Adaptation by Blaise Barham based on a translation by Stuart Young
Direction by Blaise Barham
Original Music by AJ Hickling
Aerial choreography by Rochelle Brophy
Sahara BreeZe Productions Ltd
Childhood homes bring back so many memories: some good, some bad, some magical, some nightmarish.
Sahara BreeZe (SBZ) Productions are delighted to premiere this visually stunning new multi-disciplined multi-media adaptation of The Cherry Orchard.
Written by Anton Chekhov in 1903, the first production was famously directed as a tragedy even though Chekhov intended it to be played as a comedy. Regarded as a theatrical masterpiece, it is as relevant today as it was in the past.
The Ranevsky family live on an old estate with a wonderful cherry orchard. Despite being in economic crisis, they are unable to change their expensive lifestyle to pay the mortgage on their estate, so it has to be auctioned off. Still not all is lost as they have a way out: to cut the cherry orchard down, and subdivide the land for holiday houses. But their family home and orchard hold so many magical memories.
This production is the premiere of a new adaptation directed and adapted by Dunedin-based theatre maker Blaise Barham, who brings this Russian play into a more modern New Zealand context. It is adapted from a translation by Stuart Young and includes original music by AJ Hickling. This version focuses on themes of how we deal with loss, adapt to an ever-changing world, and struggle between how to live on, and yet not destroy, our beautiful planet.
This adaptation also uses a blend of traditional, musical, and physical theatre, as well as French and Russian clowning. Barham draws on skills learnt from master clown Philippe Gaulier during a recent training season in Paris, as well as aerial circus, to highlight the spectacle and comedy of the piece. This production is a continuation of experimentation with mixing genres as seen in The Bear (March 2023), which incorporated stylized performance, aerial straps and silks.
Supported by the Dunedin City Council professional theatre fund
Matushka Zemlya - Clare Lewis
Yermolay Lopakhin - Cheyne Jenkinson
Dunyasha - Sofie Welvaert
Semyon Yepikhodov - Daniel McClymont
Pishchik & Firs - Brent Caldwell
Anya - Becky Hodson
Lyubov Ranevskaya - Sarah Barham
Varya - Aimee Freeman
Leonid Gayev - Matthew Brennan
Sharlotta Ivanovna - Imogen Duncan
Yasha - Conor Hill
Petya Trofimov - Josh Black
Designers and Crew:
Production Manager - Linda Brewster
Stage Manager (SM) and props - Christine Wilson
Assistant SM - Lydia O’Callaghan
Lighting Design & Op - Tabitha Littlejohn
Sound Design - Josh Wiegman
Sound Operator - Abby Fernandes
Audio Visual Design - Elizabeth Audas
Set Design - Peter King
Set Construction - Conor Hill
Aerial Circus Design & Performance - Rochelle Brophy
Waltz Choreographer - Sydnee Vercoe
2 hours 15 mins
Magical effects, enthusiasm and playfulness
Review by Terry MacTavish 18th Nov 2023
“To begin to live in the present, we must first pay for the past, make our peace with the past.” – It can hardly be denied that Anton Chekhov, like Shakespeare, is as relevant today as ever. He could be speaking of the rights of indigenous peoples, of the legacy of slavery, of refugees and the homeless, of the horrors of Gaza. What society has not suffered from the wrongs done in the past by one element to another less favoured, has not undergone social upheaval, bloodshed, even war as a result?
The Cherry Orchard by the Russian/Ukrainian master, first presented in Stanislavski’s style by the Moscow Art Theatre, is set 40 years after the ‘Emancipation’ of the serfs which ended the Russian feudal system. While some of the older peasants, ‘Uncle Toms’ like Firs in this play, still pine for the days when everyone knew their place, power has gradually shifted from the ineffectual aristocrats to the rising, moneyed middle classes.
Clearly this production is a labour of love for director Blaise Barham, who has acquired a reputation for experimental yet inclusive theatre with a wide range of creatives and extraordinary production values. Earlier this year I reviewed SBZ Productions’ The Bear by Chekhov in the same theatre, an audacious interpretation of a script also translated by Stuart Young of Otago University.
Director Barham has taken a less radical approach to the actual script this time – no white mask faces and stylised movement, but a realistic approach to the plight of the characters, who wear contemporary dress. Passages of naturalistic dialogue (made more believable by the way individuals fail to listen to each other, often replying at random) are interspersed with dreamlike stage effects.
Poetic Realism is a term often applied to Chekhov’s style, but Magical Realism seems to suit this production better. First we are pleasantly diverted by the lovely musicians who will be onstage throughout, a white robed singer, Clare Lewis as Mother Earth, accompanied on the grand piano by the aptly-titled God of Music, Sam Meikle. Then the cast precede their own arrival with a fast paced and smartly executed mime of the long train journey from Paris to the Provinces, while the Otago Heritage Railway train chugs across the screen behind them. Now for the story.
Returning bankrupt Madame Ranevskaya, charming but hapless, is about to lose her ancestral home, with the famous Cherry Orchard she has loved from childhood. She retains enough glamour for the once-bullied, now wealthy ‘little peasant’ she kindly patronised, to want to help her. Sell the orchard for summer holiday cottages, he urges, but with a snobbish Downton Abbey shudder, ‘How crass!’ she refuses to be advised.
An infuriating character in many ways, but Sarah Barham skilfully imbues her with a warmth and generosity of spirit that make it hard for us to despise Ranevskaya as she probably deserves. Barham delivers most movingly the soliloquies in which she describes the tragedy that drove her from home, the death by drowning of her little son, and the abusive relationship that has now sent her back from Paris.
Other experienced cast members provide impressive support for Sarah Barham, creating convincing characters and projecting well. Matthew Brennan blusters amusingly as brother Gayev, who shares his sister’s love of the old life, but is too lazy and inept to save the orchard. Brent Caldwell is delightful as equally ineffectual, permanently-broke neighbour Pishchik. He gives the best-ever ‘when you must practise your dressage but don’t have a horse’ act, and also doubles wickedly as the decrepit and deaf old servant, Firs.
On opening night some of the younger cast members have more difficulty accommodating their voices to the large theatre, clarity of diction a problem with Realism that presents a challenge for talented Aimee Freeman as embittered adopted daughter Varya. Amusing yet poignant, her petulant grumpy voice, combined with awkward movement, is just right for the character, but means she is not always audible. This is especially the case in the scenes with Ranevskaya’s natural daughter, Anya, played by Becky Hodson, who is nicely vivacious but also sometimes hard to hear.
The men’s voices (sincere apologies to the women) do carry better in the Mayfair, and Josh Black makes a very engaging ‘perpetual student’ and one-time tutor, Petya, who has some of the most high-minded sentiments to deliver and does so without being pompous. He and Anya together would no doubt be on Climate protests today.
Although surprisingly he does not have a ‘peasanty’ accent, Cheyne Jenkinson is energetically dominating as Lopakhin, the upwardly mobile serf turned rich businessman. In a sense the villain of the piece, he sees himself as the potential saviour of the old family, and cannot understand why they do not share this view.
I am particularly entertained by the love triangle winningly presented by Sofie Welvaert as delectable Dunyasha, the maid who fancies herself as a refined and sensitive lady, plus her luckless suitor the clerk Yepikhodov, nicknamed in Young’s neat translation ‘Disaster Zone’ and played with clumsy charm by Daniel McClymont, and thirdly the slimy, arrogant manservant Yasha (Bronson Toghill), clearly a wrong ‘un, but equally obviously with more sex appeal for deluded Dunyasha. Their picnic scene is a highlight, followed as it is by a clever musical number.
But this is no place to pick favourites, for Chekhov was against the star system, giving all his characters equal consideration and indeed compassion, and it is pleasing to see these actors working as an ensemble, especially when Barham requires them to depart from the text and go madly off-piste. Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies, and Barham has exploited all possible humour in the text. This playful approach comes naturally – as well as an irresistible sense of humour Barham has training in clowning, and has just returned from refresher theatre studies in Europe.
Certainly, the fact that Chekhov has rather astonishingly written the eccentric governess Sharlotta (an exuberant Imogen Duncan) as an ex-circus performer, still prone to perform magic tricks and ventriloquism, seems to justify a whimsical use of circus skills and wizardry.
These range from slapstick song-and-dance numbers and Commedia-type lazzi, to projections of the face or visions of the character delivering a soliloquy. There are even bubbles descending over the rapt audience, that mysteriously become puffs of smoke when they burst. The mellow lighting design by Tabitha Littlejohn is most attractive, as are the AV effects by Elizabeth Audas, including film of the cast frolicking at Glenfalloch.
Loveliest of the magical effects are the aerial silks that represent the cherry orchard, which in turn symbolises the fears and dreams of the characters. Exquisite aerialist Rochelle Brophy evokes with fluid grace the delicate beauty of white springtime blossom, later appearing, with Dylan Woods, as stark black branches against a snowy winter sky.
The draped silks and flexible set, created by Fortune veteran Peter King, of sleek white flats before a subtly coloured cyclorama, have served the play well, concluding with an impressive, almost literal, coup de theatre satisfyingly depicting the ultimate fate of the Cherry Orchard. So many brilliant theatrical ideas, too many to describe, it is just conceivable that some might feel a few could have been saved for the next production, but SBZ Productions are nothing if not liberal and lavish!
It is encouraging that we have companies of such ebullient enthusiasm and playfulness, prepared to meet the challenge of producing Chekhov, but the last word goes to that great playwright, his message still vital today – the voice of the young, confidently dismissing the screw-ups and melancholy nostalgia of the previous generation: ‘We’ll build a new cherry orchard, more beautiful than the last’. I hope so.
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