New life for Chekhov's Cherry Orchard in outback WA

Ben Mortley burns down the house with Hayley McElhinney in The Cherry Orchard. Photo Daniel J Grant
Ben Mortley burns down the house with Hayley McElhinney in The Cherry Orchard. Photo: Daniel J Grant

The Cherry Orchard
By Anton Chekhov, adapted by Adriane Daff and Katherine Tonkin
Directed by Clare Watson
Cast: George Shevtsov, Bridie McKim, Emily Rose Brennan, Grace Chow, Sam Longley, Brendan Hanson, Michelle Fornasier, Humphrey Bower, Hayley McElhinney, Mark Nannup, Kieran Clancy-Lowe, Ben Mortley
Black Swan State Theatre Company

Anton Chekhov’s tragicomical The Cherry Orchard was first performed on the verge of Russia’s 1905 Revolution. It skewered the decay of the Russian aristocracy and the rise of new bourgeois forces and revolutionary-minded students.  

The fading aristocrats of the Russian provinces, sighing for the bright lights of the capital couldn’t comprehend their decadence.

Here it is given somewhat broader humour in an Australiana adaptation that swaps regional Russia for Manjimup, Western Australia, and St Kilda for the siren call of sophisticated St Petersburg.

Not only that, but early 20th century Russia becomes 1988 Australia, on the verge of the Bicentennial celebrations of the landing of the First Fleet.

Chekhov used the fading fortunes of the indebted, aristocratic Ranyevskaya family who must sell their beloved family farm with its cherry orchard, following the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. This Black Swan Theatre production brings in references to Aboriginal dispossession and massacre.

There is also mention of the 1987 Perth Cup victory by Rocket Racer, owned by the corrupt tycoon Laurie Connell. The horse was so hyped up on stimulants that it won by nine lengths and immediately had convulsions, symbolising the culture of "WA Inc".

The use of 1980s music is at times hilarious. The songs are perfectly chosen and play the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and explaining plot twists.

The cast is uniformly good and again demonstrates Black Swan’s ongoing commitment to diversity.

Hayley McElhinney as the matriarchal Ranyevskaya is outstanding. She fully inhabits the role, mining it for sensuality and melancholy.

Also superb is Ben Mortley as the upstart capitalist neighbour, Lopakhin. His physical comedy dazzles in an hilarious drunken dance to Talking Heads' Burning Down the House.

Maximum use is made of the venue overlooking the Swan River, Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct. The audience circulates through interior to exterior spaces for different acts, generating a most unusual theatrical experience — friendly chatter among strangers.