The Cherry Orchard

(Queensland Theatre Company)


QTC’s Cherry Orchard venture has arrived as spectacularly as the Cherry Venture ship wrecked three decades ago on our coast near Double Island Point. In his production for the centenary of Chekhov’s last play, Michael Gow has moved even ahead of his daringly dislocated adaptation of Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

In continued collaboration with Mahony designer Robert Kemp, Gow has mounted the Russian classic on a vaudeville-boarded stage whose curved enclosing shell evokes the fragile beauty of the doomed cherry orchard whose blossoms breathe in through a tall window.

Noisily the actors caper, clump, prance and dance across the resonant boards with a vigour that both counterpoints and underlines the interweaving of punchiness and pathos in the script that alternately tickles our ribs and tugs at our hearts.

All the huge cast make the most of the vinegar and the vodka in their roles. No character is a carbon copy of any other yet they all manage to interlock in the play’s rocky progress from arrival to departure. In the Bille Brown Studio we are brought up close to a game of musical chairs on the deck of a landlocked doomed Titanic, with chainsaws echoing the imminent iceberg.

Michael Gow made pre-season comments that the plot is minimal, yet the apparent inaction of the four acts camouflages a minefield of emotional, social, financial and ideological booby-traps, some of which fail to explode but some of which do. I guess we all guess that the orchard’s gotta go, man, but I’m sure Chekhov wanted to surprise us about whom it goes to and I’m not going to give it away here.

On the cutting edge of the orchard, we are caught in a spider web of bonds entangling Madame Ranevskaya, (Sally McKenzie), her billiard-ball-brained brother Gaev (Steven Grives), naïve daughter Anya (Rebecca Dale), frenetic adopted daughter Varya (Rebecca Murphy), neighbours the brash Lopakhin (Andrew Buchanan) and mortgage-minded Pishchik (Leo Wockner), with one-woman circus Charlotta (Caroline Kennison), employees Dunyasha (Kellie Lazarus), accident-prone Yepikhodov (Lucas Stibbard), opportunist Yasha (Patrick Drew), octogenarian Firs (David Clendinning), the eternal student Trofimov (Bryan Probets) and local functionaries, swaggies and musicians (Nick Backstrom, Sasha Janowicz, Katei Chang, Patrick Marchisella and Tom Raymond).

Sally McKenzie is deliciously irritating and finally heart-breaking as the rouble-reckless matriarch, hopelessly non-coping with the turbulence round her. But the whole cast makes a mosaic, each fully individual in tone colour but each responding, whether by sympathy or send-up, to the situations of his or her fellows. Thus the poetry-reciting stationmaster of Nick Backstrom is aware that he is a guest in an uneasy household. And tearful Dunyasha among the luggage and resigned Charlotta against the back wall contribute in complementary ways to the final collapse. The eternal student Trofimov’s truisms are triggered by internal volcanic fires and erupt with passion that erases their rhetorical clichés.

I have no problem with the multi-mix of clothing styles that leaps barriers of period and place or with a production style that interweaves naturalism with its very opposite. A century after its birth in pre-Revolutionary Russia, this play has much to download into our New Millennium. The background of mortgaged estates and remembered serfdom is not at odds with our rising interest rates and tensions of Social Security.

Nor am I troubled by the locating of the outdoors Act 2 within the basic interior space of the other acts. The deckchair interlockings of Dunyasha and Yasha, the comic weaponry interplays of Charlotta and Yepikhodov, and the deadly-delicious duettings of Yepikhodov and Yasha make field, stones and poplars utterly superfluous. And the quiver of rippling light supplied by Andrew Meadows is all we need to “internally image” (as Stanislavsky would say) the river.

Choreographer Neridah Waters has made the dancing seem spontaneous. Sound designer Pete Goodwin has intensified Chekhov’s final wishes for the death agony of the orchard.

— Paul Sherman
(Performance seen: Thu 29th April 2004)