A Cherry Orchard for our times

Belvoir St Theatre's The Cherry Orchard. Photo: Belvoir St Theatre Facebook

The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov

Directed & Adapted by Eamon Flack
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
29 May - 27 June 2021

Belvoir St Theatre’s intelligent and creative adaptation of The Cherry Orchard makes a significant contribution to the theatre scene in Australia.

The production deftly draws on a range of themes that relate to the contemporary Australian context, while being faithful to the social and political insights of the original play.

Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, written in 1903, reflects the changes in Russian society after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The plot revolves around the relationships between masters and servants in a context where the social status and the economic power of feudal landowners was declining due to an emerging capitalist class.

What is striking about the current production is the diversity of the cast along different age, ethnicity and (dis)ability backgrounds. Disabled actor Keith Robinson, who uses a wheelchair, disrupts the normalisation of able-bodied theatre productions.

Also among the cast members is Nadie Kammalleweera, an award-winning Sri Lankan actor, who performed in the lauded 2019 Belvoir play , written by S Shakthidharan and directed by Eamon Flack.

Along with the diversity of the cast, this adaptation re-configures Chekhov’s patriarchal, heteronormative narrative by introducing a lead female character as well as a lesbian relationship between two characters.

In the original play, the cherry orchard is auctioned in order to pay for the mortgage and a former servant becomes the new owner. The contradictory ambitions between the servants and masters instigate a range of dynamic relationships and individual responses which intersect notions of solidarity as well as ruthless competition and egoism.

In the Belvoir adaptation, the cherry orchard is converted into a housing development to pay the mortgage. This is particularly relevant to the contemporary context, where the rise of finance capital is increasingly parasitic upon the productive economy.

The dis-embedding of finance from the real economy is reflective of how financial markets continue to flourish, despite a pandemic creating a public health emergency across the globe.

Belvoir’s adaptation sees the former servant Lopahkin, (played by Mandela Mathia), emerge as a wealthy bidder for the property, full of promises of a better world for all. While a few characters are sceptical, many are drawn to the marketing message and the notion of new possibilities.

Meanwhile, their only escape from the complexities of life is within consumer culture. The solace of the moment was captured in the play with a beautiful understated rendition of the Cyndi Lauper song, Time After Time, in Italian.

The minimalist stage setting and costumes enables the audience to focus on the substance and the emotive content of complex entangled lives. The play also reflects the courage of the director, Eamon Flack, to push the boundaries of contemporary theatre and encourage experimentation in order to discover novel and meaningful interpretations of old stories.