Review: The Cherry Orchard (The Depot Theatre)

depotVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Jul 15 – Aug 1, 2015
Playwright: Anton Chekhov
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Jane Angharad, Anne Brito, Myles Burgin, Leo Domigan, David Jeffrey, Justine Kacir, Theo Kokkinidis, Dave Kirkham, Emily McGowan, Roger Smith, James Smithers, Cherrie Whalen-David
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Interest in Anton Chekhov’s plays have not waned over the last century. In Australia, not a year goes by without several productions materialising from his famous scripts, and at every outing, we seem unable to keep from arguing endlessly about them. Chekhov is classic, but he is also divisive. Theatre lovers tend to have strong personal conceptions about the meanings derived from his oeuvre, and when it comes to how his writing should be presented, opinions can get quite strong. Art is many things, and when we try to put restrictions on what it encompasses, we need to be vigilant about what is excluded. So perhaps, art is everything. Replication and imitation are thought of as transgressive in the creation of art, yet originality is hardly ever seen. In the theatre especially, we are constantly making references and quotations, almost to the point where we have given up on the importance of making something new.

Julie Baz’s rendering of The Cherry Orchard is interested in the ideas of the script. It is clear that although those ideas have already been shared many times, this production considers them to still be relevant and significant. There is a considerable chasm however, between Moscow in 1904 and Sydney today, and finding parallels between contexts is a challenge, and slightly tenuous, when the show is presented with a sense of reverence, which seems to aim for an experience that is about recreating and re-enacting, rather than reinventing. The result often looks like an historical artefact, with meanings that are not immediately resonant.

Live performances are most successful when there is an energetic exchange between the action on stage and the illusory passivity of its audience. A show takes into account how it is being perceived, and leaving that to chance is an unwise gamble. Much of this production seems to take place in a bubble. The cast is not uniformly strong, and we often feel kept at arm’s length, either by a lack of confidence or a mistaken notion that performance is a one-way street. Moments of frisson occur when the actors allow themselves a more spontaneous and creative space of expression. David Jeffrey as Lopakhin rejects preconceived notions of “what Chekhov must have been” and plays his role from a more honest point of departure. With the simple intention of portraying a colourful character, and an astute awareness about his part’s contribution to the narrative’s effectiveness, Jeffrey is able to form a strong presence on stage and fosters a connection with the viewer. Also fascinating is Roger Smith, who plays the 87 year-old Firs with charming idiosyncrasy and warmth. His looks to be a vaudeville inspired style of presentation, but it works well for a role that situates slightly outside of the main storyline, and the actor takes every one of his opportunities to entertain.

There is value in creating faithful interpretations of classics, but trying to get things right from a vast distance of time and space is hard, and then making it meaningful to an audience for which it was not intended, is also problematic. The Cherry Orchard is about the changing of times, but the production seems trapped in a past that we have only read about or imagined. It manages to locate moments of truth when Chekhov’s writing turns to diatribe, but it is not consistently genuine. The Buddhists and the New Ageists often prescribe placing focus on the here and now, and that belief is perfectly suited to the theatre. Magic does happen on stage, but we have to be there to set it off.