22 June 2009

The Cherry Orchard - The Old Vic - Wednesday 24th June 2009

Early one May morning, after a long absence (during which she lived in Paris), the widow Madame Ranevsky returns home to her family estate to find that it has been heavily mortgaged to pay for her extravagances and that it is to be auctioned off. With her arrives her daughter, Anya, and Anya’s German governess, Charlotte. They are greeted by Varya, Ranevsky’s adopted daughter who manages the remnants of the once-grand estate; Gayev, Ranevsky’s brother; Lopakhin, a former peasant who has become a wealthy merchant and neighbour members of the staff; and other neighbors and friends.

Amidst her recollections of her girlhood nursery, Madame Ranevsky is reminded that the estate will be sold to clear debts in August, unless the family can raise sufficient funds. Generous and distracted, she seems incapable of recognizing andacting on her desperate situation. Lopakhin offers to lend Ranevsky 50,000 roubles to cover the debts and save the estate--if she will permit the land to be divided into lots for summer tourist homes. This, however, involves cutting down the estate’s famous cherry orchard, which Ranevsky loves dearly; and the plan is rejected as sacrilege. Several other ideas to save the estate also arise: Gayev will try to secure a loan, or perhaps Anya will visit her wealthy great-aunt, a countess in distant Yaroslavl, and be richly married. Nothing is resolved.

Later in the summer, courtship seems to preclude business. The new servant, Yasha, competes with the estate clerk Yepikhodov for the attentions of Dunyasha the maid; Varya tries to prevent a union between her sister, Anya, and the perpetual student Trofimov (former tutor to Ranevsky's infant son, who drowned at age six), and everybody assumes that Varya will marry Lopakhin, though there has been no proposal.
In the midst of this, Lopakhin tries vainly to get the family to be more practical, but Ranevsky confesses that she squandered her fortune on her unfaithful lover in Paris and is probably not capable of practical dealing with the immediate problem. Firs, an aged servant, longs for “the good old days” before the serfs were emancipated, but Trofimov dreams of progress. He is glad the estate will be sold, for to him every leaf in the cherry orchard tells of a serf’s complaints and sufferings.

August arrives, and the estate must be auctioned to meet the mortgage payments. Gayev attends the sale, hopeful that the great-aunt’s money will be enough to satisfy the creditors. At the mansion a farewell party is underway even though there are no funds for the orchestra. The household members dance and quarrel until Lopakhin returns with Gayev from the auction to announce that he has bought the estate where his father and other family members once was serfs, and he intends to carry out his plan for cutting down the orchard. Seeing Ranevsky’s sorrow, Lopakhin remorsefully wishes that “this miserable disjointed life could somehow be changed.” Anya comforts her mother, promising that together they will build a new, happy life.

In the autumn, with the estate and orchard now gone, Ranevsky readies for her departure to Paris, where she will live on the money from the great-aunt. Anya will accompany her and attend school. Gayev has a job as a bank clerk; Trofimov, as a translator. Lopakhin has failed to propose to Varya, so she will become a housekeeper for others. However, Lopakhin does hire Yepikhodov to work for him and promises to find a new position for Charlotte. Ranevsky is worried about the old and ailing Firs, but is told that he is in the hospital. Once the family and their entourage depart, however, Firs finds himself alone, locked in the deserted house. Axe strokes resound outside, as the woodsmen begin at last to cut down the cherry orchard.


Ranevksya – Sinead Cusack
Anya – Morven Christie
Varya – Rebecca Hall
Gaev – Paul Jesson
Lopakhin – Simon Russell Beale
Trofimov – Ethan Hawke
Simeonov – Dakin Matthews
Charlotta – Selina Cadell
Yepikhodov – Tobias Segal
Dunyasha – Charlotte Parry
Firs – Richard Easton
Yasha – Josh Hamilton

Production Credits:
Director - Sam Mendes
Translation - Tom Stoppard

Set Designer: Anthony Ward
Costume Designer -Catherine Zuber
Lighting -Paul Pyant
Sound-Paul Arditti
Music-Mark Bennett
Music Direction-Dan Lipton
Choreographer-Josh Prince
Casting-Maggie Lunn & Nancy Piccione, C.S.A

To Waterloo on a broiling June evening, along with seemingly thousands of teenage girls dressed as jailbait, who booked tickets for this show not because they wanted to get to the bottom of Chekov’s enigmatic tale of a civilisation in decline and family angst, but because they wanted to swoon over Mr. Ethan Hawke, who is apparently an actor in moving pictures. No, I haven’t seen any of them, and no, I had only vaguely heard of him before. So I can’t tell you what all the fuss was about, except that teenage girls currently seem to be going for lank, beardy types who would look more at home in the kind of bar that has wooden floors, half-length louvre doors, a pianola playing honkytonk music in the corner and possibly Mae West sipping moonshine and tonic at one end of the counter while keeping an eye on her scantily clad burlesque dancers. Unfortunately for said teenage girls, Mr. Hawke’s appearances were mercifully brief so, during the longeurs between his scenes, they kept themselves occupied by doing their nails, texting their friends (“Chelsea and me is at featre c-ing Ethan he is well fit innit”), eating rapidly melting chocolate eclairs and shifting so much in their creaky seats that being in the Upper Circle sounded like being on board the Marie Celeste during a hurricane (of note is that quite a few of them were so obviously bored by the whole thing that they didn’t come back after the interval). The rest of the audience peered through the gloom trying to make out what was happening on stage (Lighting by “Desperately Underlit Theatre Productions, Inc”, once again), tried to ignore half the casts’ impenetrable American accents and steeled themselves not to storm the stage and strangle one of Chekov’s most irritating characters.

I’ve seen much better-directed Chekov plays than this (there was a fantastic – and probably definitive - Three Sisters at the National shortly before I started writing this blog) – and, admittedly, much worse (The Seagull, one of my first two or three reviews). This production just seemed to be a bit bland, a bit staid, and a bit lacking in depth, bite and ideas. Him Indoors wittered on about “naturalistic direction” – for which read “uninspired”. When I go to the theatre, I want to see something theatrical. And considerably better lit. For the scenes of the play which took place in the nursery, the stage was divided into alternate strips of darkness and light – presumably to represent the bars on the nursery windows and possibly the psychological prison in which most of the characters feel themselves trapped. Or something poncey like that. In practical terms, it just made the stage dingy and difficult to see.

Part of the problem, I feel, is that the character of Ranevksya is extremely unsympathetic, constantly maundering on about happy times long gone and seemingly unable to agree to an idea which has been handed to her on a plate and which would solve all her problems in one go. I’m sure many of the audience were, like me, wanting to shout “For crissakes, just sell the fucking orchard and have done with it!” while applying both my hands to her throat and banging her head repeatedly on the floor. Presumably it is an indication of Sinead Cusack’ skill as an actress that I felt this so strongly. My feeling wasn’t helped by Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lophakin, which seemed to have no “bite” whatsoever. Instead, we got the standard SRB portrayal of a shambling, avuncular, slightly camp apologist, forever wringing his hands, giggling and aspirating over everyone in the loud bits, nor by Selina Cadell’s bizarrely-accented governess (a seemingly completely irrelevant part, in my opinion). Of course, it might have been something to do with the translation by one T. Stoppard, Esq., who larded the text with phrases such as “Stop being such a noodle” – prove me wrong, but I’m sure no Russian ever said such a thing in 1904 – and smartarse Shakespeare misquotations such as “Get thee to a scullery”.

Apparently, in the first St. Petersburg production, the eponymous orchard was represented on stage, and audiences broke into cheers as the axes rang out. Sadly, this was rather how I felt myself, but contented myself with “accidentally” standing on the foot of a teenage girl who was holding up the exodus at the end by, at the top of the staircase and the top of her voice, telling her friends just how “awesome” Mr. Hawke had been.

New section! Theatre Geekery!
For your delectation and delight, and so that you can bore all your friends with your in-depth knowledge of theatre, I’ll now be including a couple of items of trivia about each show I review.

The Cherry Orchard is the only Chekov play in which a gun appears on stage but is not fired.

The first production opened in Moscow on 17th January 1904, Chekov’s last birthday (he died in June that year). It was directed by Constantin Stanislavski. Chekov hated it, considering it “under-rehearsed” – it was “only” in rehearsal for 6 months. Chekov’s wife played the lead.

What the critics thought:





01 June 2009

Arcadia - Duke of York's Theatre - Thursday 4th June 2009


The action takes place in a room on the garden front of a large country house in Derbyshire, but in two times, the present and the early years of the nineteenth century. Thomasina Coverly, a precocious thirteen year old, receives a lesson from her tutor, Septimus Hodge. The two are discussing Fermat's theorem, Newton and other matters of mathematics and physics when they are interrupted by Ezra Chater, a third-rate poet. Chater accuses Hodge of having been spied in a "carnal embrace" with Mrs. Chater, a charge Hodge makes little effort to deny. Meanwhile, Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom, is wrangling with her landscapearchitect, Richard Noakes, who wants to clutter the immaculately kept grounds with a gloomy hermitage and other gothic paraphernalia.

The second scene moves to the twentieth century. Coverly descendants still reside at the estate: young Chloe, mathematician Valentine and mute, mysterious Gus. They are also hosts to best-selling author Hannah Jarvis, there to research a history of the estate's gardens, and to literary scholar Bernard Nightingale, who intends to prove that Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, visited Sidley Park and killed Ezra Chater in a duel.

Back in 1809, Thomasina translates a Latin passage about Cleopatra and then expresses her grief at all the knowledge lost during the burning of the Library at Alexandria. Hodge consoles her. Chater and his “second”, Captain Brice, arrive, demanding satisfaction for the stain upon Mrs. Chater's honor. Hodge agrees to meet them that afternoon for a duel with pistols. Hannah discovers one of Thomasina's notebooks, in which the girl describes an iterated algorithm. Thomasina's work in 1809 correlates to Valentine's modern-day study of grouse populations. He has the raw data, in the form of hunting logbooks, but he can't find the algorithm that defines the ebb and flow in the numbers of grouses. The logs, however, do prove that Byron did, in fact, visit the estate in 1809, a discovery that excites Bernard no end

Act Two opens with Nightingale reading his Byron lecture to Valentine, Chloe and Gus. Hannah arrives and is openly derisive, pointing out where Bernard has played fast and loose with his interpretation of history. Chloe goes out of her way to defend Bernard. Valentine also voices his objections to Bernard's unscientific methods, and Bernard rounds on him with a blistering denunciation of scientific progress. He ridicules Valentine's grouse research, causing him, Chloe and Gus to flee the room in anger, frustration and humiliation.

Nor does Hannah escape Bernard's tirade. He hands her a copy of the Byron Society Journal, which contains an article contending that the sketch Hannah used on her last book's dust jacket cannot possibly be Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb, as she assumed it was. After delivering this bombshell, Bernard makes a pass at Hannah, which she declines. He then reveals that he has been sleeping with Chloe. For this, he receives a sharp slap in the face. Unperturbed, he gives Hannah a small book, The Peaks Traveller and Gazetteer, which contains a reference to Sidley Park and the mysterious hermit who lived on the property. He takes his leave. Valentine returns, and he and Hannah read that the hermit was driven insane by "Frenchified mathematick"; Hannah suspects this hermit is none other than Septimus Hodge.

The action returns to 1809 to the morning of Hodge and Chater's duel. As it turns out, no one has been shot. Mrs. Chater, however, was discovered during the night in Lord Byron's room. The poet was sent away, and the Chaters have left for the West Indies with Captain Brice, who is, in fact, Mrs. Chater's lover. Lady Croom is indignant to have found two letters from Septimus Hodge. In one, Hodge professes his love for her. The scene ends with the suggestion that he and Lady Croom will soon consummate his passion.

Valentine and Chloe read the media's sensational reaction to Bernard's lecture about Byron. ('Bonking Byron Shot Poet'). Hannah arrives, and on his laptop computer, Valentine shows her "the Coverly set" (his thesis on grouse populations, which is based on Thomasina's equations). Valentine thinks that Thomasina should be famous, but it is revealed that she died in a fire on her seventeenth birthday. Suddenly, it's simultaneously 1812.

The audience and various characters learn that Ezra Chater died of a monkey bite in the West Indies some years after he was supposed to have been shot by Byron. Bernard will be a laughing stock now that Hannah has sent a letter to that effect to The Times. It is revealed that Thomasina foresaw the implications of the second law of thermodynamics and that on the eve of her seventeenth birthday she finally declared her love for Septimus. . Finally, Gus proves Hannah's hypothesis about the identity of Sidley Park's hermit by silently bringing her Thomasina's sketch of Septimus.

Past and present merge as Septimus and Thomasina, Hannah and Gus whirl around the stage to the strains of a waltz, separated by centuries yet united by the mysteries of chaos and attraction.

Producer: Sonia Friedman Productions/Robert G Bartner/Roger Berlin
Director: David Leveaux
Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume: Amy Roberts
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Sound: Simon Baker

Samantha Bond (Hannah)
Nancy Carroll (Lady Croom)
Jessie Cave (Thomasina)
Neil Pearson (Bernard)
Dan Stevens (Septimus)
Ed "My Deddi Wrote This Play" Stoppard (Valentine)
Trevor Cooper (Richard Noakes)
Sam Cox (Jellaby)
Lucy Griffiths (Chloe Coverly)
Tom Hodgkins (Captain Brice)
Hugh Mitchell (Augustus/Gus Coverly)
George Potts (Ezra Chater)
Sometimes, a play is better on the page than it is on the stage. On the page you can pause, go back, re-read, sort out any minor tangles in the plot in your head and admire the erudition of the playwright. If there’s a cast list from the first production, you can mentally people the play with those actors. If the play touches on a particular interest of yours, you can sit there and revel in the little bits of interesting trivia and feel smug that you and the writer know the same sort of useless things. Occasionally, you can feel even smugger when the playwright gets the “insider details” completely wrong. You can quote bits of the play and feel erudite.

And then a new production of the play is launched. You rush for your diary and your credit card, spend more than you can really afford on tickets and hug yourself in anticipation. On a steaming summer night, you cram yourself into a seat which isn’t quite big enough for your and jiggle about in your seat with excitement. And then the curtain goes up and within 30 minutes you are thinking “Jesus Christ, this is a dreary play”. And you drag home afterwards feeling depressed and disillusioned.

And so, Dear Readers, all of the above came to pass with the new production of Arcadia – Mr. Stoppard’s foray into the world of garden history. I was sooooo looking forward to this. I quote from the play in a couple of my lectures. I love the period half of it is set in. I’ve got a postcard of Rufus Sewell looking shagable and Byronic in the original production. And I haven’t got any illusions left any more. This is a DREARY play. Very little of it is about what I thought it was about. The story is typically Stoppard – overlong, pretentiously erudite and very, very, very wordy with very little action. I can’t see how any director could make it anything other than very static. Maybe, with the right cast, the dialogue crackles with learned wit as we are drawn deeper into the mystery of what happened that fateful night at Sidley Park (Lord Byron in the Gazebo with a pistol). But this isn’t the right cast, and I’m not altogether sure it’s the right play, - or the right time for a revival. Maybe I shouldn’t have been expecting so much out of it. But I left the theatre feeling robbed – of the cost of the tickets and of my enthusiasm for the play itself. I found myself getting desperately bored with all the waffle about chaos theory and Boyle’s law of thermodynamics, iterated algorithms and academic posturing. It obviously wasn’t just me – throughout the first half, gales of laughter drifted up from the stalls while, up in the circle, there was a stony silence. Him Indoors theorised that it was because the “posh people in the stalls got more of the academic jokes” (as if having the wherewithal for expensive tickets equals educational ability) – I maintain it was because the dialogue was far more audible closer to the stage; there did seem to be an awful lot of muttering going on, or perhaps we were all rather confused by the odd acoustics. Certainly the number of people in the circle dropped by 50% during the interval (which at least made it less cramped, but no less unpleasantly hot, about more of which anon).

The Regency costumes were generally badly researched – the designer went for “the obvious” rather than “the correct”. There wasn’t a single pair of correctly period shoes on the entire stage, and hairstyles were abysmally modern. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m sure someone will because I’m sure all my Readers are clever people and know all sorts of stuff) but I don’t think the Alice Band was a staple of Regency hairdressing,. Jessie Cave, as Thomasina, wore one over long hair which was hanging down straight, and this really looked completely wrong. The modern-day costumes were an odd blend of 80s, 90s and Noughties.

There were some OK performances, but none, I think, that came anywhere near what those in the original performances must have been (I didn’t see it, so admit that this is pure supposition). But Sarah Bond just ain’t in the same league as Felicity Kendall, nor does Neil Pearson have the academic weight or dry wit of Bill Nighy. However much I may refute Him Indoors’ scathing dismissal of Mr. Pearson as merely “Women’s Television Totty”, I don’t think he is right for the part of Bernard Nightingale. Dan Stevens made a good job of the role of Septimus but, you know, gazing at my postcard of Rufus Sewell, can’t help but think the latter would have been more Broodingly Byronic. Nancy Carroll seemed to take a good long while to get to grips with the role of Lady Croom and her final scenes were very well done, but I kept imagining Harriet Walter in the original production and thinking……hmmmmm. Ed Stoppard, aside from the obvious charges of nepotism which are undoubtedly going to be levelled at him (and with good reason), did a good job but, you know, Sam West played that part…..OK, OK, I have to stop this business of comparing everyone on stage with those that were in a production I never saw, but I just can’t help thinking that they would have done it better….

On the subject of it being extremely hot in the theatre, those of you who are connoisseurs of the absurdities of modern life will no doubt enjoy this extract from an exchange during the interval with a staff member who opened the fire exit doors to let some fresh air in. Him Indoors showed a surprising turn of speed and managed to nip past and onto the fire escape, prompting the response “You can’t go out on the fire escape because its against Health and Safety Regulations”. The Devil whispered in my ear and I asked whether this would be the case during a fire? I got a sour look in exchange. The Theatre Manager then walked past and went on to the fire escape. Desperately anxious to prevent a staff member breaking their own Health and Safety Regulations and leaving themselves open to possible litigation should there be an accident , I told him “You can’t go onto the Fire Escape, its against Health and Safety……” Two sour looks…… and a “tick” for today. (another arrow in the side of pompous officialdom!).
A disappointing evening, all in all. It went on for far too long, basically and, I think, has failed to catch the mood of the times. 15 years ago, this type of play was all the rage. Now, in these hard-pressed times, I think people are going to the theatre for escapism, a night away from the dreariness of all modern life's problems - which may explain why lightweight stuff like Sister Act and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, are doing so well. Arcadia, I think, will struggle to find an audience this time round.
What the critics said: