Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama was kind enough to host the October 2014 world congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics. For five days, they fed, housed, conferenced and entertained 100 theatre critics from around the world—an enormously complex undertaking. Being of this group, and being somewhat between the cultures of East and West myself, I could see both sides when they, well, surprised one another. One surprise for the non-Chinese speakers was that we were treated to a full production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but with barely a scrap of information about the show. It was natural to be curious about the theatre we were in, for example, and about the mysterious Russian director, and the designers whose work was so critical to the production. Many of the actors seem to have been very well known to their public, but I don’t know their names to research them. There were also no surtitles, so it was rough going for those who didn’t know the play well, and I was just lucky that I did.
In any case, there were stretches of the performance during which there was time to think one’s thoughts about the show, and I’ve also continued to think about it since then. What follows are my professional remarks, along with some notes on my trains of thought, both then and now.
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Lobby display of the production’s cast members.
The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov. Dir. Vladimir Sergeyevich Petrov.
Central Academy of Drama, Beijing, China. Photo: L. T. Renaud
The Central Academy of Drama in Beijing has an idea more conservatories might adopt: have your teachers perform together in a full-length production open to the public. The Academy’s teachers are all professional actors, of course, but it still takes nerves of steel to perform for your students—and with a busy faculty as your cast, it must have been challenging to schedule the amount of rehearsal time it takes to achieve a true synthesis of acting and design elements.
Theatre critics don’t routinely take an interest in the difficulties of a production’s rehearsal schedule. This seems odd to me. If Tiger Woods has prepared for a golf tournament with time limited by a torn hamstring, the sports media are interested; if members of a rock band have rehearsed for a tour together after a long hiatus, the music critics are interested. In the theatre, the performance we see is so much a product of how the rehearsals went: did all the actors know each other, or when did they meet? Did a critical cast member join rehearsals late, coming from another show? How long was the rehearsal period—days, or years? When did they move from rehearsal hall to the stage? On opening night, were the actors wearing their full costumes for the first or second time, or navigating sets they’ve never, or only recently, seen? I’m still interested in the wonderful scholar-critic-practitioner model I was trained in, so I believe it enriches a theatre reviewer’s work to consider the myriad practical complexities of rehearsal—and scheduling is a major one.
(L) A photograph of Chekhov was projected onto the stage-wide drop.
Photo: L. T. Renaud. (R) The photograph that was projected:
Chekhov in his study, Yalta. Likely taken by Chekhov’s brother, Aleksandr,
an avid photographer and his family documenter. Photo: Public domain
When we entered the theatre, there was an enormous white backdrop hanging from flies to stage floor, covering much of the of the stage’s width. Projected on it: an unusual photograph of Chekhov in formal clothing, standing in an informal, even jaunty, at-home pose. Tensions between formal and informal, and the mixing of periods and styles, surfaced repeatedly in what followed. Period costumes, for example, were punctuated with here a contemporary necktie or sneakers, there an evening gown; once, I even heard an “OK, OK.” Scene changes were accompanied by songs in French and something vaguely Arab-sounding.
At the time, I confess I was mystified by these choices of music. Without any context, they were simply jarring. But at breakfast the next morning, I sat at a table of Chinese-speakers, and the subject of the show’s music came up. Most of us couldn’t fathom how the pieces were connected to the play. But a refined older gentleman saved us from ourselves, assuring me (through the translation help of a delightful Hong Kong colleague) that both French popular songs and Arab folk songs would have been part of Chekhov’s music-scape in Yalta, where he lived from 1898 to 1904, completing The Cherry Orchard not long before his death. I’ve been mulling over this gentleman’s comments ever since.
Of course the cultured Russian of the period was steeped in everything French (for my Ukrainian mother, this remains an imperative of good breeding); some of Stanislavsky’s thinking that we revere was shaped by his yearly trips to Paris. Members of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia had much interaction with cultivated Jews (Chekhov was once engaged to a Jewish woman), and in the Ukraine (Yalta is in Crimea, in southern Ukraine), a third of the population was Jewish before World War I. Their Hebrew music was deeply influenced by Arab folk songs. My readings tell me: when people talk about the Hebrew-sounding aspect of Bartók’s music, it’s the Arab influences they are hearing.
So indeed: why not French and Arab songs in Chekhov? We live in the Multicultural Era—this is certainly reflected in Beijing newspapers, too—so why not a more fully multicultural production of Chekhov? And doesn’t that also turn out to be a more authentic Chekhov? This was the 110th anniversary of the first production of The Cherry Orchard: time to open it up! In a show inclusive of different periods and styles, why not more inclusive in terms of music, too?
With a director who is Russian, too, a multicultural Chekhov suggests a humanitarian perspective. In April of 2014, in concert with the overall darkening of Putin’s Russia, the Ministry of Culture released a statement, “Fundamentals of the State Cultural Policy,” which denounces the multicultural project as a danger to the fabric of Russian culture, responsible for crime, alcoholism and the suicide rate: “Preserving a single cultural code requires the rejection of state support for cultural projects which impose alien values on society.”
The music that simply puzzled me at first turned out to be fascinating when I had the time to absorb its relevance. Still, program notes would have been nice!
When nothing was projected on it, the massive white cloth was an austere presence. There was a chill when the cloth rotated, swinging silently and brushing the stage floor: it served to change the scene, but also to remind us that, after all the strutting and fretting, Time would sweep away all we were seeing and these people would be “heard no more.”
In contrast to the backdrop, so elegant and unsettling, there was a row of large, rough, rather lumpy burlap bags every few feet along the stage’s downstage edge. They were informal. These were the set; there was no suggestion of a cherry orchard in view. The bags were used inventively in different combinations, carried from place to place to form playing areas, allowing the actors to sit, kneel or lean on them, giving each stage picture a variety of head levels.
A crowd jostled around the lobby displays of production photos.
The burlap sacks in action. Photos: L. T. Renaud
The opening scene was simply inspired. Rather than the usual sleepy tone, here, Lopakhin burst in, stripped off his jacket and shirt, hung them over Dunyasha’s shoulders as if she were a hanger, washed vigorously from the small basin she handed him, splashing water onto the floor without concern. Then he bounded across the stage, drying off and dressing while Dunyasha mopped up the water. This was a man of energy, enamored of his success and status: “all business” in both senses.
It has always interested me that Chekhov wanted Stanislavsky—who was a successful businessman outside the theatre—to play Lopakhin, the iron-willed servant-turned-landowner. Stanislavsky declined. He chose to play Gayev, the mistress’s angel-tongued brother who is ignored by everyone as an embarrassing old fuddy-duddy. I believe this is very much how Stanislavsky saw himself, and increasingly so over the years.
Here is a video clip from Stanislavsky's beautiful performance of Gayev (at 0:04; see also Olga Knipper’s Ranyevskaya at 1:36, and Mikhail Tarkhanov’s Firs at 2:10).
After that kick-ass opening scene, the production had a pleasant wandering quality, but it wasn’t always clear whether that was intentional. To some extent, the play text does seem like a sequence of fragments compared to, say, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1897), which is driven by its plot; The Cherry Orchard (1903) is more like a collection of encounters around the theme of change, where “change” means loss to some and freedom to others. This seemed to be the spirit of the Beijing production. At the play’s core is the passing of a way of life, and Chekhov paints it in impressionistic strokes, more Monet than Manet.
At issue for any production of this play is the tone. Key figures involved in the original Moscow production were divided as to whether the play was more comic or tragic, and there are two veins in the critical literature. One vein focuses on Chekhov’s own remark that the play was “gay and giddy,” and on the sad moments that are so often interrupted by silly ones—joking, teasing, dancing. Others point to the poignancy of losing a childhood home, and to the imminent scattering of the people whom the home no longer supports, financially or emotionally. Much scholarly writing on Chekhov seems to obscure him, both as a person and as a writer. Stanislavsky’s own accounts of Chekhov are utterly captivating, and belie the pitiful rumor that Stanislavsky was not a highly gifted writer. But I enjoy Maurice Valency, who looks at Chekhov’s work through his life, letters, and the cultural history of his day. In The Breaking String (Schocken Books, 1983), Valency—bypassing Barrault’s famous and famously upbeat 1954 version—weighs in:
The Cherry Orchard has many comic passages, some of them so broad as to approximate farce but, generally speaking, directors have been unable to fathom the author’s comedic intention. The reason is not far to seek. The play, on the whole, is not funny. The characters have their comic side, but the situation is sad. No rationalization has ever succeeded in giving it a comic bias.
Without the benefit of explanatory Director’s Notes, it’s tempting to guess that in Beijing, guest director Vladimir Sergeyevich Petrov wanted to try out “giving it a comic bias.” The scenes tripped along, like smooth stones skipping on the surface of a placid lake. The haunting sound of the breaking string, which arguably catapulted the dramatic art into the modern age, was cut out. The role of Charlotta, the play’s force of chaos, was either somewhat cut, or underplayed. Where Stanislavsky achieved intimacy in his 1904 production by introducing “the fourth wall,” so that the actors addressed each other in “realistic” space, Petrov achieves a comic lightness by having the actors often play “frontally,” facing the audience. Firs, the faithful aged servant, laughed to himself throughout, as if harboring a fund of cheerfulness within, and the sounds of chuckling and giggling were a significant part of what we heard from all the characters.
But it is hard to square this bright tone with some of the facts of the play, especially regarding the role of Ranyevskaya, mistress of the sinking ship that is her family’s estate in foreclosure. This role was played by the regal Hao Rong, Head of the conservatory’s actor training, who appeared to find everything positive in her character’s situation. After all, Ranyevskaya has already been away for some years, so that her attachment to the estate is only sentimental, or to her past. She is about to return to a lover who is pleading for her in Paris: why not tie up loose ends here and let the young people move on in life? The student Trofimov, eager to jettison the estate in the name of Progress, cries, “Forward! Don’t fall behind, friends!” and Ranyevskaya’s young daughter, Anya, replies, “Why is it that I don’t love the cherry orchard as I used to?” Indeed, the production seemed to argue, who really needs the cherry orchard, anyhow?
However, this choice didn’t give the actress much to do, and her delivery was oddly flat, the Chinese language’s tonal melody notwithstanding. Ranyevskaya’s only son had drowned here (we saw his ghost—a directorial choice I’d never seen before); she’s been brought back to Russia following her suicide attempt. We may want Ranyevskaya, and everyone else, to enjoy the show’s party atmosphere at the end, replete with confetti, but the sorrow in the lines keep getting in the way. Even in Chekhov’s stage direction, when Ranyevskaya and her brother (Gayev, Stanislavsky’s role) are left alone, “they embrace each other and sob quietly.” This show ended with the full cast singing together with a guitar, à la Bob Dylan—connecting the play’s story to modern times, or perhaps signaling something politically-tinged that I wasn’t meant to understand.
Lopakhin has bought the cherry orchard (L) and house
where his father and grandfather were slaves.
Photo source: Xinhua News Agency
For all the Beijing production’s accomplishments, I sorely missed the cherry orchard, not just as a central metaphor for impermanence, but as a physical presence of loveliness and the visual meaning it gives the characters’ actions. As Ranyevskaya says, “I love this house—I can’t imagine life without the cherry orchard.” At a climactic moment, the burlap bags were opened and out spilled a multitude of plastic cherries that hit the stage floor with an artificial sound no one could possibly associate with fruit or flower. The simple, flexible set design was certainly striking—but it’s safe to say that Chekhov, a famously passionate gardener, could not have imagined a Cherry Orchard without a cherry orchard.
(L) Chekhov in his horticultural paradise, Yalta. Photo: Public domain.
(R) Planned as a guest house on his estate outside Moscow, this became Chekhov’s writing retreat. When he moved to Yalta, the buyer cut down Chekhov’s orchard.
Photo: Sergey Ponomarev.
On his website, Ben Dark, garden historian extraordinaire, places Chekhov at #2 on his list of Great Gardeners in History. (#1 was a monk in the Dark Ages.) In 2008, the Anton Chekhov Foundation initiated a Yalta Chekhov Campaign for the restoration of his celebrated gardens. This project counts among its patrons Tom Stoppard, Kenneth Branagh, and Ralph Fiennes. Three other finds: I came across several accounts of Chekhov’s horror at hearing in Yalta that the buyer of his former estate near Moscow had cut down most of his cherry orchard. Gorky said that any visit to Chekhov in Yalta included a tour of the vegetable gardens. In letters to his wife, Chekhov regularly reported on which of his new plantings were taking, and which flowers blooming.
Chekhov designed his garden in Yalta with walkways for strolling.
Photo: Fritz von der Schulenburg
Ben Dark describes Chekhov’s vast gardens as “a heavenly paradise of native and exotic plants.” Chekhov consulted arborists and horticulturists before planting: 57 types of roses, 159 types of arboreal shrubs, 11 types of camellias; currants, gooseberries, mulberries; peach, pear, almond and apricot trees; quinces, watermelons, artichokes, asparagus and sunflowers. He planted irises by the thousands, chrysanthemums and lilies, as well as cypresses, bamboo, acacias, cedars and birches. He planted 12 kinds of cherry trees in an orchard Ben Dark says covered 2500 acres, which is hard to imagine—but from maps of the estate, one can see clearly that the gardens occupied more than half the acreage.
Chekhov’s Yalta garden: exotics and cherries.
Photo: Public domain
Mr. Dark has a witty point of view about all this: “Chekov gardened with abandon… In the last years of his existence Chekov’s garden was his life. It seems a shame that this most noble gardening legacy has been eclipsed by something so tawdry as a literary reputation.”
Nevertheless, the Beijing production did both play and audience a service by pushing against the text to see how it would behave; it gave provocative and worthwhile emphasis to a layer of levity in the text. Today, with many of our own precious legacies in question, we might be grateful for a production with a bright spirit.
The final leave-taking after the estate has been sold.
Ranyevskaya, lower right. Photo source: Xinhua News Agency
Cover Photo: Chekhov’s garden in Yalta, July 2013.
Photo by visitor LTW1234 on www.tripadvisor.org
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Note: A briefer version of this piece will appear in Issue 11 at www.CriticalStages.org