Aotea Centre
April 4-5 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

THE BRIDGE PROJECT is such a good idea that it’s a wonder that is isn’t done more often. Collect eighteen of the best stage actors from the UK and the US, and arrange to tour two classic plays in repertory across centres in Asia, the Pacific, the US and the UK. That Auckland was chosen to be one of these centres is perhaps a credit to the persistence and network building of the programming people at The EDGE. It was certainly a boon to the capacity audience that turned out for the opening night.

The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s last play, is perhaps his finest. Although it still takes time to get used to the many characters and their complex interrelationships, the task is made easier by the spot-on characterisation of this cast. Even the most minor character is given some quirk to make them easily identifiable. The squeaky shoes and clumsy movements of lovestruck clerk Yepikhodov (Tobias Segal), draw an early laugh; whereas Rebecca Hall, as housekeeper and daughter Varya, has an upright dignity that in many ways makes her the real tragic heroine of the piece.

Tom Stoppard’s new translation of the play gives a contemporary wit and verve to this classic without taking away from its period feel. The play may be set in the Russia of the early 1900s, but its themes and issues resonate down through the ages. It is perhaps fitting that a play which explores the reasons behind the decline of the Russian empire be given new voice by actors from the UK and US, arguably two of the world’s currently declining empires.

The play opens and finishes in the nursery of an old family mansion. Here, small sized furniture and a set that consists of a smaller stage stacked on top of the main stage give the impression that adults are playing at being children; indeed, it is the inability of aristocrats to look outside their sheltered nursery and see the real world for the place it really is that makes for much of the dramatic tension of Chekhov’s play.

Madame Ranevskaya, played with girlish insouciance by Sinead Cusack, is a wealthy widow who is returning to her estate and childhood home with its famous cherry orchard. While she sees the cherry orchard as a symbol of childhood innocence and purity (although this has since been coloured by other memories, including the drowning of her son in the nearby river), others see it as a source of profit.

One such is Lopakhin (Simon Russell Beale), a self-made man who comes from local peasant stock and has always harboured a secret love for Madame Ranevskaya – or at least the aristocracy and culture that she represents. Russell Beale’s character is the most complex of those portrayed, and he infuses it with a wealth of conflicting emotions and motivations. On one hand he loves his old masters and wants to see them do well, even aspiring to join its ranks by winning the hand of Madame herself; on the other his entrepreneurial spirit sees that there is no place for sentimentality in the new Russia. Like the beautiful but useless cherry orchard, the aristocracy must be felled to make way for the new world order.

Madame has spent the last five years travelling, frittering away her family fortune on Parisian finery, an entourage of servants, governesses and associated hangers-on, and unfaithful lovers. Now she returns just as her estate is about to be sold to pay her debts. Madame’s attitude to both love and money is childlike – she thoughtlessly spends and borrows money even when the long-suffering Varya tells her there is none, and rejects Lopakhin’s advice to lease out her land to the middle class as “tawdry”. Her brother Gaev (Paul Jesson) and elderly landowning neighbour Simeonov-Pishchik (a spritely Dakin Matthews) add fuel to the fire by encouraging her thoughtless spending – “something always turns up” says the guileless Simeonov, who is slowly and unknowingly handing over his land to prospectors. This attitude is most underlined when Madame decides to throw a party on the day of the estate’s auction – dancing, drinking and running away being her main modes of coping.

Watching a production of this scale is a luxury. Among the (comparatively) large touring staff is someone exclusively devoted to hair and wig design (Tom Watson – who does a particularly good job of making over Ethan Hawke into a balding eternal student); there are also in-house musicians who add live music to the recorded effects, and numerous designers and managers. The cast itself numbers eighteen.

As should be expected, the acting and technical aspects are top-notch. The only issue was that despite onstage miking, the production still fell prey to the notoriously poor acoustics of the Aotea Centre and some lines dropped out. However, the dramatic visuals of the staging and the excellence of the actors more than made up for this in terms of understanding.

I felt that the decision to use the actors’ own accents jarred, despite the lovely reference to the ‘bridging’ concept. It may be okay to play a Russian aristocrat in a British accent given the parallels of the two cultures, but when her supposed manservant answers in an American accent, the dream is lost somewhat. And these actors are more than good enough to carry off any accent desired.

But at the end of the day, the production does what it should: acts as a conduit for Chekhov’s ideas to take centre stage. And seeing The Cherry Orchard for the first time, I was left awed, moved and thoughtful. The themes of loss of innocence, denial in the face of evidence and overturning of the old world order are perhaps more relevant now than at any time in history.

It is difficult these days to stage a piece like this well and keep the audience’s attention; a slow-burn style of theatre, with long, considered soliloquies, as opposed to the fast-cut style of so many contemporary pieces. I think the production succeeded in this admirably well.