Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Cherry Orchard at BAM

The very tall
Rebecca Hall
Thinks plummy vowels equal sense

While Simon Beale
Will never kneel
To anything but excellence.

There is something very British about Tom Stoppard’s new Bridge Project version of The Cherry Orchard, which is currently playing at BAM. As directed by Sam Mendes, in a style which deliberately tries to build a bridge between Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett (hence the project name?), the show is one part willful blindness, one part class warfare, and a dash of despair served in a mug of repressed emotion, which adds up to a portrait of the British character more than an unblinking look at Russian landowners. But those qualities are always the ones which have attracted the Brits to Chekhov. There is no vodka sweat in their productions of Chekhov, just the bright perspiration of teatime. Which is not a complaint, mind you; translations are tricky businesses (and the subject of a later post) but this one seems more innately British than most.

Possible reason why? It's not really a translation, but a revisal. Stoppard said earlier this year that he wanted to treat this Cherry Orchard as a working play, not a rote exercise in word substitution, and in that he's succeeded. There's a loose vernacular feel to the script; it's so fresh in places that, if you're familiar with the play, it makes you misremember things. Is Yasha's part really so small? (If it is, as a friend of mine remarked, then Josh Hamilton is getting gypped.) Does the dialogue between Trofimov and Ranevskaya really go on that long? And is Varya secretly in love with Trofimov -- is that why she's always sniping at him? The last question was one of a number of little revelations this new version provides. By opening up the script to the kind of working rewrites he'd do for his own work, Stoppard is stretching familiar characters into unfamiliar places. For that alone, you should see it. But the main reason to see it, of course, is for the acting.

Sinead Cusack
Still has the knack
Of making women who are blind

To their own flaws
Look sweet because
At heart they're basically kind.

The Bridge Project is a British/American joint venture (heavy on the Brit side) which will be doing this play in repertory with Winter's Tale at BAM through March and around the world for the next year. It is also a master class in acting, with the Brits as teachers. While there's a certain anti-Colonies bias in the casting (the Yanks play the cad, the schlemiel, and the perpetual student) , everyone is in the same play (how rare that is), there are no fake British accents from the Americans (no Peter Sarsgaards in this production, thank God), and everybody brings game whenever a Yank and a Brit have a scene together.

The direction by Sam Mendes is a solid mix of drawing-room intimacy and impressionistic stage pictures. There are a series of triptychs, three people looking out into the audience as if through three bay windows, that reminded me of the opening of Olivier's Three Sisters. (Homage? I'd have to see the Olivier film again; I only saw it the once, when it came out 30-odd years ago, but I still have vivid memories of Alan Bates and Joan Plowright in it.) And the end is straight out of Samuel Beckett -- the old man in bare feet and a nightgown, falling to the stage and lying there in the bright white lights of a room empty of everything except for a child's chair.

Give Ethan Hawke
A chance to talk?
There's nothing he won't give tongue to.

He'll race the course
A little horse
(And so's his voice by sentence two).

There are a great many directorial brilliances in this show (Beale's Lopakhin running amok at dinner being the brightest), and only one mis-step that I can think of. [Spoiler alert] There's a point in Act Three where Lopakhin kneels beside Ranevskaya and leans in to kiss her. It's a brilliant touch (if Lopakhin is in love with anyone, it's the mother, not the daughter), but it makes hash of the Act Four moment when Ranevskaya plays Dolly Levi and sends her daughter Varya to Lopakhin so he can propose to her. It says something either stupid or nasty about her character that she wants to see her daughter married to someone who so obviously wants her instead. (Sinead Cusack goes the willful ignorance route; there's a lot of Mother Lord from The Philadelphia Story in her performance, especially the Mother Lord of the second half, where the once-sharp matron seems to have lost half her wits upon the return of her errant husband.)

Picky picky picky, right? Still, it's the rare revival where you find yourself seeing a play and its characters with fresh eyes, and this is one of them. If you saw The Seagull that was just on Broadway and liked it, then you'll love this. And if you hated the Broadway Seagull, then you owe it to yourself to see this, if only to cleanse your Chekhovian palate.

And while we're doing poetry, here's the play in six lines:

The servant's son
is Number One --
He buys the house (including tax).

Proposal? Nope.
Regret trumps hope
And puts the orchard to the axe.

Next: some thoughts about translations, or, The Myths Behind Language . . .

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