What do Gorky, Bulgakov and Chekhov have in common? They're all Russian, they're all playwrights, and they've all had their works mangled at Britain's National Theatre by director Howard Davies and his Australian rewrite man Andrew Upton.
After Gorky's Philistines in 2007 and Bulgakov's White Guard in 2010, Davies and Upton apply the same crude techniques to Chekhov's last and most political play. I'm not going to repeat what I wrote about these earlier ill-advised productions and the British theatre's lack of respect for plays by non-Anglo-Saxon authors. In The Cherry Orchard, Davies uses some of the same actors, and crucially the same designer, Bunny Christie, whose visual understanding of Russia seems to be wholly lacking. Of course, in the theatre a director is free to shift the time and setting of the action, though some works lend themselves better to this treatment than others. (Setting The Merchant of Venice in modern Las Vegas is a much better idea than shifting Three Sisters to Milton Keynes in 1985.) But Davies is insistent in his programme interview with Dan Rebellato on the importance of the original historical context -- Russia on the eve of the 1905 revolution, so he has to be judged accordingly. Davies and Christie have decided to strip out all lingering traces of the 19th century by giving Ranevskaya's estate a telephone, electricity and motorcars instead of horses. Historically, that's just plausible (at least it's less ridiculous than their addition of an electric vacuum cleaner to Gorky's Philistines), though I really wonder how the bankrupt estate could have afforded these ultra-modern luxuries. The whole point about Chekhov's play is that Ranevskaya and her family are trying to live in the 19th century when Russia has already entered the 20th, so by giving her house conveniences which would have been extremely rare in rural Russia in 1904-5, the dramatic impact of her refusal to face the present is lost. The house itself is designed, as Christie tells us in the programme, to look like 'an old warehouse in Chatham Docks that Howard really liked'. Unfortunately, it looks like an abandoned railway building with bare boards, bare walls -- more like the dosshouse from Gorky's Lower Depths than a much-loved home in which Ranevskaya and her ancestors have grown up. It is impossible for the audience to believe that she or anyone else has any nostalgic feelings for a building so monumentally ugly, and one of the major themes of the play is thus completely nullified. It makes no dramatic sense.
Reviewers have already panned the deliberate choice of modern colloquial language -- 'bollocks', 'frigging', 'crap artist' and so on. But none of the critics seem to know the play well enough to have spotted Upton's wholesale insertion of extra speeches, besides which the use of the occasional swear-word is a minor misdemeanour. This applies particularly in the second act, where Petya Trofimov the eternal student has his political speeches extended and rewritten. Played by Scottish actor Mark Bonnar, who also played Nil, the 'positive hero' in Philistines, this character becomes something quite different to the work-shy prig which Chekhov created. The subtle irony of this sponging layabout lecturing everyone on the need to work falls by the wayside, and the vacuous exchanges between Trofimov and Ranevskaya's daughter Anya are also given a completely different meaning. The essence of Chekhov is all in the subtext, with deep layers of ambiguity that are lost in Upton's version. The rewritten version is so far away from the original and so inferior that Chekhov must be turning in his grave.
The tragedy of this production is that there are some very talented performances struggling to get out from behind the soggy blanket of Upton's prose, the daftness of Christie's design and Davies' inability to understand Chekhov's humour, humanity and sceptical irony towards his characters. Zoe Wanamaker has lots of experience on the vast Olivier stage, and gives Ranevskaya a hop-skip-and-jump quality which I liked. But I was never really moved by her predicament. James Laurenson is excellent as her brother Gayev, and newcomer Charity Wakefield, whom I last saw in The Rivals at Southwark Playhouse, as her daughter Anya makes the transition to the big stage look easy. Pip Carter, Sarah Woodward and Tim McMullan are rather wasted in the cameo parts of Yepikhodov, Charlotta and Pishchik, but the real star of the evening is Conleth Hill as Lopakhin. As the self-made businessman who buys the estate, he radiates vulgar confidence, tempered by a slight social insecurity. The last time I saw this play at the Old Vic, Lopakhin was played by Simon Russell Beale, a much too cerebral actor. Hill's Lopakhin is closer to the ticket -- a man one cannot imagine ever reading a book.
There are further problems with the way Davies has directed the play, however. The Cherry Orchard is based on weaving together and conveying to the audience a subtle network of bilateral relationships, all of which are important. Yepikhodov-Dunyasha, Dunyasha-Yasha, Trofimov-Varya, Trofimov-Ranevskaya, Varya-Lopakhin are woven together into a seamless whole, but here these relationships seem blurred and fuzzy. Rather than an ensemble (I'm thinking of Cheek By Jowl's superb Three Sisters), this production seems to consist of actors all playing their individual parts but only rarely interacting with each other. This is exacerbated by the size of the Olivier stage, which is less fitted to Chekhov than the smaller Lyttelton.
The play is also full of subtle distinctions of class and status which are important to the picture of Russia in 1904, and most of these are lost. Everyone on stage seems to be of equal social rank, which is quite wrong. If the barriers between the fading gentry and their inferiors are to be eroded in a new era of social mobility, then the original distinctions of class and soslovie (social estate) have to be made clear. If Yasha the uppity manservant lounges around from the start like an equal, then the scene in act four when he helps himself to the champagne he is supposed to be serving loses its shock value.
In his programme interview Davies jokes about fining the actors each time they ask for a parasol or a linen suit. To some extent, I can sympathise with the desire to get away from the traditional visual approach to Chekhov, but the uniformly drab costumes in this production make it hard to tell one character from another. (I was sitting in the back row of the circle.) If you clothe everyone in grey, brown and black, it becomes impossible to suggest one of the important faultlines in the play -- the division between the fashionable visitors from Paris (Ranevskaya, Yasha, Charlotta and Anya) and the others who have spent the last five years mouldering away in the muddy depths of provincial Russia.
Chekhov was no social conservative; he definitely sensed that political change was overdue and Russia had to modernise. But his faith in a better future was tempered by scepticism about empty political theorising and by a human sympathy for the gentry whose lives were being turned upside down. Above all, he wanted his play to be funny. 'Play it like a farce,' was his message to the first production at the Moscow Arts Theatre. While there are some laughs in this production, they come from Upton's silly verbal jokes, rather than from the interplay between characters. It may seem contradictory to complain that both the comedy and the sense of lives being wasted are missing, but I think Chekhov brings the two together. His characters have a ridiculous streak, but their foibles and weaknesses, their stupid dreams and their illusions are ours.
Overall, this is a frustrating evening in the theatre for anyone familiar with the play in the original Russian, or with Michael Frayn's excellent translation; a flagship production by the National Theatre of one of the world's greatest plays with an excellent cast, ruined by a director, designer and writer who between them don't seem to have a clue about Chekhov or Russia. This isn't a cherry orchard, just a pile of sawdust.