Chekhov’s final play finds itself uprooted from both its Russian origins and its familiar place within the Western theatrical canon in ATC’s latest production of The Cherry Orchard. It has been replanted, by several strokes of genius, in 1970’s Aotearoa – a New Zealand experiencing the death of the old new world, and the birth of a recogniseable future.
Chekhov fans will not be disappointed, and nor will those new to him – this is a show full of the complexity and agility, comedy, tragedy, and dark irony that are the hallmarks of the original. Not only that, but adapters Albert Belz, Tainui Tukiwaho, Philippa Campbell and director Colin McColl have created a uniquely New Zealand story within The Cherry Orchard’s universal conflict of old versus new. And it’s highly enjoyable. The show speaks to a kaupapa centred on manaakitanga, both voicing and creating the empowerment that comes with change – and it does so with (amongst other things) impressive magic tricks, a sparkling sense of fun, and the world’s most adorable dog.
Alison Bruce’s billowingly stylish and romantic Louisa is the sentimental but profligate Pākehā owner of the North Island farm that is home to the eponymous, beloved cherry orchard. Against the backdrop of set and lighting designer Tony Rabbit’s versatile (and captivatingly lit) farmhouse nursery, Louisa must come to terms with the impending loss of her childhood home and land. Its upkeep and running have become entirely unviable while she has been away in Paris with a lover. Now surrounded again by family and the whānau she has long since had in the local Māori farming community, her struggle against reality becomes almost musical, accelerating as a crescendo in the first act towards a slower dirge as the Orchard is lost. Time whirls her inexorably closer to the loss she fears and denies. Meanwhile, for younger businessman Wiremu (Te Kohe Tūhaka), time marches him ever closer to claiming the land and material success he’s dreamed of – and which, deep down, he associates with redressing the injustices done to his people.
In fact, a dramatic dance involving the entire ensemble is set in motion early on in the first act, with a playful lyricism that carries the characters’ grievances, flaws and foibles, and offers them up pitilessly (but without judgement) to the audience to make sense of for ourselves. We’re indulged with characters who will delight and outrage us as victims of their own stupidity, privilege, fallibility and passion, and their moments of limelight complement each other and the play as a whole with impeccable timing. I once read a description of Chekhov’s writing that noted how it’s almost as though he lets silences form in his work, which his characters nervously fill and in so doing reveal themselves – the adapters have preserved this quality brilliantly and the cast exploit it with gusto.
Bruce’s maelstrom of passion, joyous nostalgia and suppressed grief is underscored by a fatal loss of touch with the reality surrounding her, as we watch her slowly crumble in her failure to adapt her values. She is offset in every respect by Te Kohe Tūhaka’s confident, yet self-conscious, upwardly mobile Wiremu as he becomes an ultimately more forceful energetic opposite. His adaptiveness and conviction amount to him becoming a bastion of progress – ‘whatever that means’, the writing seems to add as a caveat, through the existentially impassioned political rants of Peter Trafford (Eli Kent), which entertainingly cast him as sexy in the eyes of Louisa’s impressionable young daughter, Anna (Indigo Paul).
From Hera Dunleavy’s hilarious, slightly hippie and totally deadpan German woofer, Charlotta, to Andrew Grainger’s warm, but hopeless and billiards-obsessed Leo, to Maria Walker’s agitated and conflicted Wikitōria, we are spoiled by characters large enough to accommodate Chekhov’s leaning towards farce. The soulful tones of Justin Rogers’ voice are offset comically by his shuffling nature, while Ian Mune’s manservant Tips’ actual limp belies nerves of steel that entertainingly offset young Kōwhai (Krystal-Lee Brown) and her flightiness. Eli Kent is a believably evangelical socialist whose passion is juxtaposed by Joe Dekkers-Reihana’s ennui as the almost Parisian Matu. Rāwiri Paratene makes for the warm-hearted fiscal liability who is local farmer Pōata Jones, while Wayne Hapi’s Passer-by was heartily enjoyed by the audience and Pipi The Dog in equal measure.
ATC’s The Cherry Orchard is a fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking production. The cast more than do justice to this exciting adaptation, which remains aware of itself as such, and that’s half the fun. Some of the inevitable slight incongruities, such as the presence of cherry trees themselves on a New Zealand farm, for example, are vital to the kaupapa of the show, because they serve as reminders that this production is about more than just creating a fiction for audiences to get lost in. The double-distancing effect of placing the action in the 1970s ensures that we cannot forget that this is an adaptation, and really that’s the point – we are invited to think about and wrangle with the fact of Māori and Pākeha perspectives being brought together, both within that fiction, as land is lost and claimed, and in the overarching context of being brought to a canonical classic. And more than that, we are invited to ask what that means at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, and what it means for the future of drama in New Zealand.
The Cherry Orchard is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 26 June.