A night at the theatre

Saw Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at Belvoir Theatre last weekend in a nuanced but also fun production (dir. Eamon Flack). It is acutely tuned to the contemporary possibilities for this play: the characters struggle over money, favours owed, love, the Ranevsky family’s cherry orchard, and the threat that the orchard will be sold, cut down and the land subdivided for housing development.

Having read quite a few of Chekhov’s stories over the years, and seen some of his plays, I was wary of John Shand’s review in the Sydney Morning Herald, a copy of which my father handed to me as we sat down in our seats. He’d done the old-fashioned thing of cutting it out of the newspaper.

Shand didn’t like the production’s tone; its “mistaken slapstick, dancing” and “farcical amount of running about”.

A homecoming. A picnic. A Party. A leave-taking.

As a young man Chekhov published hundreds of comedic short stories in Russian newspapers and magazines. He wrote them to feed his parents and siblings, and pay the rent. Even his serious works often retain elements of humour (though not The island: a journey to Sakhalin – see below).

The play began and it was true that there was dancing and running about—a truly fabulous dance scene opens Act 2 with the whole cast on the stage—but there was purpose to the dancing. (And the wide stage demands the actors sprint, otherwise the play would become awfully long.) Belvoir’s lead-line for the play tells you a lot about how the play’s structure has been interpreted. It reads: “A homecoming. A picnic. A party. A leavetaking.”

Each of the four key scenes involves physical, visceral movement: of arrival, of comings and goings, of eating and games and dancing, of lovemaking, of exits and entries.

The line reads like the beginning of a writing prompt: write four scenes connected by these events, with characters continuing through the sequence; in this order or rearranged to suit the circumstances of your making.

My father and I (seats D8 and D9, very good) had a chat about the accusation of farce. Farce, according to the Oxford dictionary, is characterised by ‘buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.’ There is little that is improbable in this production of The Cherry Orchard. The family’s river-front cherry orchard being cut down to make way for a housing development rings all too true.

I’ve read and loved dozens of Chekhov’s stories, and have taught quite a few of them. Francine Prose’s tender essay ‘Learning from Chekhov’ (collected in Reading Like A Writer) led me to new stories not often anthologised (and a bit hard to come by) including the short story ‘Gusev’. It ends with an exquisite passage in which the main character Gusev is sinking in his shroud, dead in the sea— breaking the rule-of-thumb that in realist prose your main character ought to be alive. Her essay is about all the ways that Chekhov elegantly circumvents the usual.

I also read Chekhov’s The island: a journey to Sakhalin (not the new trans, the original one by Luba and Michael Terpak).

This is his sociological account of his painstaking interviews and 1890 census of the 11,000 prisoners living on the penal colony of Sakhalin Island. Chekhov’s strange time on the island and the depression he experienced afterwards led me to the idea of putting him into a fictional epistolary relationship with the historical figure of Phoebe Jane Phillips, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lived on Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef in the late 1800s. From that ‘improbable situation’ came my ABC RN radio play, Dear Dr Chekhov.

If you love your Chekhov, but can’t get to see The Cherry Orchard at Belvoir Theatre this month, sit yourself down for an hour of listening with my DDC. Or better still, read some of his many excellent short stories and plays.

Author: Jane Messer

Author, Mentor, Manuscript Assessor - The Bold Ink

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