September 11, 2013

What’s the difference?: ‘Much Ado’ and ‘The Cherry Orchard’

By Judith Armstrong

There are currently two productions in Melbourne, one a film, the other a play, both presenting a classic text in modern dress.

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing shows Shakespeare’s comedy filmed in black-and-white and set in a spacious, modern two-storey house somewhere in the countryside. It could be Italy (supposedly Messina) or America (somewhere in California?). The male characters wear suits, white shirts, and, often, ties; the two female leads are in simple knee-length summer dresses with short sleeves. Over twenty-four hours (the unities are strictly yet naturalistically observed) two couples play out comedic, problematic love-dramas which inevitably end in a double wedding. It goes without saying that on the way knotty obstacles must be overcome: the attraction between Claudio and Hero is nearly foiled  by the dastardly plot of a scurrilous villain who falsely impugns Hero’s honour; Beatrice (Hero’s cousin) and her sparring partner Benedick contrive their own problems through a cussedness which almost has them cutting off their noses to spite their pretty faces.

For about three minutes at the start of this film you feel some kind of disjunction: iambic pentameters coming out of suits and frocks? But very quickly, at least in part because the actors are so at home in the Shakespearean cadences, so delighted with their wit and rhythms, you fall in most happily with the general enjoyment. Their engagement with the language and with each other quickly seems the most natural thing in the world, and once you have worked out who everyone is, it is all plain, felicitous sailing. No linguistic obscurities, plenty of fun jokes, and a houseful of characters who, villains excepted, are enormously likeable.  You are aware of having the best time ever watching this film, thanks to the actors’ own relishing of their roles, and a director whose respect for the text stays as Shakesperare wrote it yet yields its full brilliance and clarity of meaning.

The other is a The Cherry Orchard production which we are told is not by Anton Chekhov, but by Simon Stone (after Chekhov). Simon Stone is also the director as well as principal author, but none of Joss Whedon’s respect for the original is evident. Stone has already stated that old (read: conveniently out of copyright) plays, often written by playwrights with ‘little knowledge of the theatre’, are there for him to use,  even to ‘distort’ (his word) in the interests of amusing a modern audience. This means overlaying the Chekhovian text with a modern veneer about as valuable as a present-day kopeck. But perhaps that’s intentional – it is, after all, what the myopic characters will end up with given their refusal to heed the voice of material progress.

In and for his time, Chekhov was a realist who saw clearly that the feckless Russian land-owning class needed to change its tune before it was changed for them; of course they didn’t, and what followed was twentieth century revolutionary history. But in his play these people are not just ridiculously inconsequent: they are sensitive, honourable human beings obliged by their very noblesse to be (recklessly) generous with money; fond of, grateful for, and hence sentimental about the kind of life they used to lead;  and deeply supportive of anyone in their care, which includes ward Varya, governess Charlotta and a variety of servants, neighbours and hangers-on. Even a passing beggar. Giving a party that all these people can enjoy may be economically foolish, but for all his clear-sightedness, Chekhov saw redemption in human qualities such as resilience and mutual support rather than in economic rationalism.

Simon Stone’s interpretation misses this innately Russian aspect, possibly deliberately, but seeks to achieve ‘Russianness’ by maintaining awkward names and patronomics which sit oddly on these twenty-first century, Westernised characters. (Perhaps they are a tantalising reminder of the exotic, now that that so many people are taking Baltic cruises.) But his trousered Liubov Andreevna is as irritating as she is irritable and neurotic, her brother, Leonid, an unappealing, rumpled, crumpled grump. Sadly, though, these two are the representatives of the old regime, and it is dispiriting to see them without the charm, the foolish loveableness with which Chekhov endowed them, in order that his audiences would – not approve – but understand and laugh and cry, at people who are such endearingly wilful victims of their own short-sightedness.

The other drawback about this kind of production is that directors like Stone and his brother-in-arms, Andrew Upton, feel confident that they can improve on Chekhov’s text, speeding up its measured pace or inserting their own dialogue. They fail to recognise that much of the meaning of Chekhov’s plays depends not just on the words said aloud, but on a sub-text that both characters and audience need time and reflection to grasp. Hence the pauses that are written into the original text and given their proper place in classic productions; hence, also, classic productions, that so far from being boring, profoundly involve the audience. Upton’s West End production of The Cherry Orchard,  which some people will have seen in this country in a digitised film version, fills in these pauses with the director’s presumption of what is going on in the characters’ heads; the deadening effect is similar to Stone’s portrayal of how things are, in a setting upgraded to a glaringly bare, modern space with no recognisable sense of place. Unlike Chekhov’s time-worn, memory-filled country house, Stone’s space is nothing like a home - a fact which casually but brutally torpedoes the whole meaning of the play. Chekhov is realist enough to bow to history’s dictate that family homes be sold and old estates broken up, but provides an essential counter-weight: out of seeming disaster come new possibilities. Liubov longs to return to her lover in Paris and is now free to do so; Leonid is tickled pink at the idea of getting a job in the bank; and liberated Anya can go off with her boyfriend. “The whole world is our orchard!”           

Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard a comedy because the outcome is ultimately life-enhancing, but without his careful, wise textual build-up, the lesson and the optimism are both lost.  And with them, the play.


Judith Armstrong is a former Head of the Russian Department at the University of Melbourne.


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