Comedy, Tragedy….or Beckett?
The Challenge of The Cherry Orchard
Although it has been over a
century since Anton’s Chekhov’s The
Cherry Orchard opened at the
Since that infamous night, theatre artists around the world have continued the debate that sparked so much fury between Chekhov and Stanislavski by mounting productions that, in one way or another, try to answer the century old riddle: how do you stage The Cherry Orchard?
Internationally renowned experimental director Peter Brook answered this question head on with his 1988 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, creating a setting that was as minimalist as Stanislavski’s was ornamented. Requiring only a few chairs, a screen, a bookcase, and a couple oriental rugs, his bare bones rendering of the play was more existentialist tragicomedy than brooding realism. His international cast—for which he is famous for working with—created stylized characterizations that owed more to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Stanislavski’s “Method”.
Lin Zhaohua, on the other hand, took the play in a completely different direction, setting his 2004 version—which was staged as part of the National Theatre Company of China’s 2004 centennial celebration of the playwright’s death—in a expressionistic grotto comprised of eight barren trees made of plastic and iron wires set against a stark yellow earth and limestone sky. Although he did emphasize, like Stanislavski, the personal tragedies of the characters, the parallel between the play’s theme—which dramatizes the socioeconomic shift from aristocratic to capitalist dominance—and the current economic changes taking place in China did not escape the attention of theatergoers.
Tina Landau’s recent production at
When Chekhov stormed out of the premiere of The Cherry Orchard in 1904, he was already deathly ill with tuberculosis. Crushed by Stanislavski’s interpretation, he was certain that come a year after his death, he would be completely forgotten as a writer. Yet, a hundred years after, as this sampling of productions testify, his dramatic vision remains as inspiring as ever. What he produced, in the end, was neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but a “problem play”, which, like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, defies definition, allowing theatre artists to discover layers of meaning that neither Chekhov nor Stanislavski could have ever imagined. Perhaps it’s because of this versatility and elusiveness that many today consider The Cherry Orchard Chekhov’s greatest masterpiece.
Dan Tarker – Literary Associate