ANTON Chekhov always described his play The Cherry Orchard as a comedy. I have seen many productions over the years, and always thought it would take a miracle to make it substantially funny.
Sadly, it was a sleight of hand beyond the powers of the Cornish-based Miracle Theatre, currently performing Bill Scott’s adaptation of the play in the open air around the south and west. The audience in the amphitheatre setting of Maumbury Rings in Dorchester, on the first cool evening in many weeks, enjoyed the chance of a picnic and a bottle of wine or two with friends, packing the available space in front of the clever portable set, and even sitting on the surrounding high ground. We weren’t helped by the presence of a circling helicopter drowning out the words, but such is the risk of alfresco theatre.
In director Scott’s notes he says he is diluting the “Russianness” of the original, setting the story in an unidentified place that could be anywhere where a family is unable or unwilling to come to terms with its reduced circumstances in a changing social climate.
With a cast of six playing 12 roles, there’s a deal of commedia dell’arte duplication, but does it work for Chekhov?
I think it’s fair to assume that not all those who turn out for open-air theatre (perhaps especially in this unusually marvellous summer) are regular theatregoers, and so it would be easy to over-intellectualise an approach to a play that is devised and performed more as general entertainment. But I can’t help wondering what a newcomer to Chekhov might have thought of this complicated story whose origins are very much intact in this adapation which changes names but retains lengthy references to owned servants, as well as oft-repeated endearments that sound downright peculiar in ordinary speech.
The family (not named in the Miracle production) might be risible, but they must be recognisable. The idea is that the central character, here Luella, is so beautifully charismatic that everyone else is a little in love with her, from her daughters to the servants to the neighbours. Her impact on their lives has been so strong that they turn a blind eye to her excesses and wilful ignorance of the state of their family estate.
Poor Jill Greenacre (the only one who isn’t doubling up) just isn’t given enough material to allow her to create this character, and the rest of them are rushing around very skillfully reinventing themselves in their various characters so that the inevitable longueurs banish humour. Yes, you laugh, a bit, but there really are so many other classic plays that would be so much better suited to Miracle’s undoubtedly quirky and inventive skills.
It might work in a more intimate setting, sans helicopter, but I will look forward to a more suitable 2019 tour.