Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Out of place, out of time

28 February 2021

Black Swan’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s tragicomedy of Czarist Russia, sits uncomfortably in 1980s Manjimup, David Zampatti finds.

The Cherry Orchard, Black Swan State Theatre Company, Perth Festival ·
Sunset Heritage Precinct, 26 February, 2021 ·

Adriane Daff and Katherine Tonkin’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard – directed by Black Swan State Theatre Company’s artistic director Clare Watson – is an odd and haphazard critter.

The problems begin with its transposition from the last gasps of Czarist Russia’s antiquated social and economic autocracy at the start of the 20th century to Manjimup in WA’s greed-fuelled 1980s. While it’s natural to be wary of such radical changes in place and time, they can occasionally bring a fresh set of eyes to the universal human condition. The Cherry Orchard, though, is out of context here, and inevitably fails to deliver insight into either its original Russian setting or its new West Australian one.

It’s easy to see the temptation. The decade of the “Wild West” – of the Bonds, Connells, Dempsters, Holmes à Courts and the shoals of fishy characters who swirled around them – might superficially appear to parallel that earlier period in Russia. But in WA there was no failing landed aristocracy to go broke and have to sell their estates to the nouveau riche. Our kings in grass castles feasted on our booms and weathered our busts perfectly well, thanks very much.

And if that was true of WA generally, it was especially true of the Manjimup region. A century ago it was home to the fanciful Group Settlement scheme and the Soldier Settlement program, whose unfortunates eked out a hardscrabble living on small allotments carved out of the native forest. There were small farms aplenty around Manjimup, but no aristocratic estates. There were no hereditary fortunes to fritter away, or dachas on the banks of the Donnelly River.

In any case, the wealthy arrivistes of the 1980s had no interest in these backwaters – they built their holiday mansions and grew their wine grapes between the capes.

It may seem like nitpicking, but devoid of a legitimate point of comparison, the very premise of the adaptation collapses, and what’s left is a parade of costumed cartoon characters. That parade is another oddity. It consists of four acts in three locations, presented in this season in the buildings and grounds of Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct, and the audience progresses through them for three hours, pausing only for a 30-minute interval.

Flowers for Madame … Yepikhodov (Sam Longley) makes his entrance. Photo: Daniel J. Grant

The first setting is the large hall of the old Sunset Hospital (which, coincidentally, began life as the Claremont Old Men’s Home in 1906, just after The Cherry Orchard had its premiere in Moscow). The hall’s long, narrow floor is set as a traverse stage, with the furnishings of the Ranyevskaya residence scattered about like a textbook example of social distancing.

The household’s servants are preparing for the arrival of the owner of the house and its famous cherry orchard, Madame Ranyevskaya (Hayley McElhinney), and her daughter Anya (Bridie McKim). They’re back from Melbourne, where Ranyevskaya has been living since her seven-year-old son drowned five years ago.

They are welcomed by Ranyevskaya’s adopted daughter, Varya (Grace Chow), who has been managing the bankrupt estate, and her charming but frivolous brother Gayev (Brendan Hanson). Also present at the homecoming is a neighbour, Lopakhin (Ben Mortley), who, we are given to understand, is of that rising mercantile class increasingly replacing hereditary landowners as the power in WA.

Praise be to Sam Longley, as the family’s accountant, Yepikhodov. His entrance, in impossibly squeaky shoes, is the funniest moment in the play, especially as the designer, Zoë Atkinson, has managed to dress him so he looks just like one of those eight-foot-three “tallest man in the world” folk in the Guinness Book of Records.

There’s more farcical comedy (some of it unintended) scattered throughout the play. It’s hardly surprising, because there’s some fine comic talent in the star-studded cast – Hanson and Longley can be doing nothing and still make you laugh, while McElhinney, Mortley, Emily Rose Brennan, Humphrey Bower, Kieran Clancy-Lowe and Michelle Fornasier all have strong comedy chops.

But some of the characters all but disappear in the mix, along with any real emotional power. Firs, the ancient family retainer (George Shevtsov), wanders about being loyal, wise and uninteresting, which is a hard ask for such an interesting actor. Anya, a really important character, is hardly noticeable. Nor is her idealistic beau, Trofimov (Mark Nannup), though he does speak about the dispossession of the area’s original inhabitants at some length – it’s a shameful and important part of the South-West’s history but awkwardly tangential to the narrative of this play and the issues it raises.

The household packs up and prepares to leave the estate. Photo: Daniel J. Grant

The promenade moves outside, to a wacky, albeit geographically misplaced barbecue above the Derbarl Yerrigan. After interval, the party of the original play – where the sale of the property and the identity of its purchaser are revealed – is performed in fancy dress, a change that yields tons of film and pop references but has little other reason to happen.

As the family prepares to leave their home in the final act, the sound of chainsaws tearing into the beloved cherry orchard is heard.

But by then, in the absence of a cogent, identifiable world for Chekhov’s play to live in, I’m afraid we had long since ceased to care.

The Cherry Orchard is on at the Sunset Heritage Precinct, in Dalkeith, until 20 March, 2021.

Click here to read Nina Levy’s interview with The Cherry Orchard cast member Humphrey Bower.

Pictured top: Madame Ranyevskaya (Hayley McElhinney, third from left) celebrates her homecoming with, from left, Charlotta (Michelle Fornasier), Firs (George Shevtsov), the obliging footman Yasha (Kieran Clancy-Lowe), maid Dunyasha (Emily Rose Brennan), Lopakhin (Ben Mortley) and family friend Piss-Cheek (Humphrey Bower). Photo: Daniel J. Grant

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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