Pembrokeshire, 1982. Things are going to change.
Written shortly before the Russian Revolution, The Cherry Orchard is one of the greatest of all plays. Chekhov’s comedy captures a world on the brink of social upheaval. It is a witty, compassionate study of humanity’s flaws and our refusal to face what is right in front of us. Experience this masterpiece radically reimagined by one of the most powerful partnerships working in theatre today – Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan. This new version places the action in another time on the cusp of huge social change – early 80s Britain at the outset of Margaret Thatcher’s regime.
‘Chekhov is one of the great playwrights. His ability to articulate human interaction, with all its flaws and misunderstandings, makes him a natural writer for Gary Owen to adapt.’ Rachel O’Riordan
I saw a performance of this adaption, at Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, on 25 November 2017 and will discuss a number of the changes made from the original and my rough analysis of how these changes affect the narrative.
There is a white floor, a floral patterned sofa at the front, to the right a short ornate bookcase, to the rear a Welsh dresser, a pine table and chairs in the centre and to the left a doormat indicating the entrance to the house. There is also a rear exit which due to the otherwise minimalist staging is a ceiling high white catwalk like exit with the background otherwise being black so you focus on the staged events.
Here is a basic idea of the staging:
Grey: Outside parts of the stage
Brown: Welsh Dresser, bookcase, pine table and chairs.
Sofa and the toy train which hides under it
Access to the stage off stage left and to the rear.
By Anton Chekhov
A re-imagining by Gary Owen
Director: Rachel O’Riordan
Designer: Kenny Miller
Lighting Designer: Kevin Treacy
Composer and Sound Designer: Simon Slater
Assistant Director: Paul Jenkins (a JMK Trust position supported by The Carne Trust)
Casting Director: Kay Magson CDG
George: Simon Armstrong
Rainey: Denise Black
Lewis: Matthew Bulgo
Anya: Morfydd Clark
Valerie: Hedydd Dylan
Ceri: Richard Mylan
Dottie: Alexandria Riley
The following breakdown of events and character might be a little rough but hopefully makes sense as otherwise I would have to write an essay on it all. The adaption combines certain characters to reduce the number of characters involved in proceedings and makes sense when you consider this is a family which has lost a lot of money and likely would have let most if not all essential staff go except Dottie who has grown up with them and therefore is somewhat like family in a sense.
Rainey: Matriarch of the family. She has been living in London until her return at the start of the play. Has a husband who died in a car crash due to being drunk and a dead son who she didn’t save as she fell asleep drunk on the beach.
[In the original: Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya]
Gabriel: Brother to Rainey, uncle to Valerie and Anya. A well off ‘gentleman of leisure’ who seems to just exist on the estate doing nothing much with his time.
[In the original: Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev]
Lewis: Former worker from a line of family who’ve served Rainey’s family on the farm for generations but is now a man of means in a financially better position than them.
[In the original: He is an amalgamation of characters. Yermolai Alexeievitch Lopakhin primarily but he also incorporates the business venture ideas of Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik in a more proactive manner. He is the one with money and offering business suggestions regarding the property and in the end buys it to make the land into a hotel resort. Rainey believes he is doing all this as vengeance for when they knocked down his grandfather’s cottage to plant the orchard but he denies it when confronted.]
Valerie: Elder (adopted) daughter of Rainey, running the farm and engaged to Lewis.
[In the original: Varya]
Anya: Young student and the younger daughter of Rainey who has just returned to the estate.
[In the original: Anya unsurprisingly. She implies that while at university she has had a female lover, to Ceri’s surprise and views him only as a summer fling at the end of the play though they go off together so it could be implied either she is being bluntly honest or that she is yet again teasing him though it leans more to the former. Ceri was her tutor not the dead son’s.]
Dottie: Housekeeper and maid. Her mother worked for the family before her and died of cancer.
[In the original: Dunyasha but no doubt with lines from the other servants included to the point it needs to be lampshaded she speaks with an inappropriate familiarity which in the original the older servants and their positions in the household might have allowed them. Lewis and Ceri mention she makes more than good money at the estate and faults it on nights out so that aspect of Dunyasha is retained but never shown on stage.]
Ceri: A politically minded, punk music loving, local 30 something who is a former tutor to Anya. His left-wing views are presented as empty counter-culture gesturing when challenged by Anya [in the original: Peter Trofimov with elements of Yasha.]
Rainey’s deceased son: He is spoken about at certain points in the play but only represented by a small wooden train moving unaided from beneath the sofa. He does appear on stage at the very end calling out ‘mummy’ a few times and it seemed pointless to be honest. He drowned when Rainey fell asleep drunk at the beach one day years ago and she often recalls how he was ‘drowning not waving’. In the original he is Grisha.
Charlotta Ivanovna, Yepikhodov, Firs, ‘A Stranger/Vagrant’, The Stationmaster, The Postmaster along with any other servants, guests and such are all absent or their lines integrated into the dialogue of the surviving reduced cast of characters.
Differences I recall off the top of my head ( I studied the original years ago so might have a few inaccuracies when comparing them):
All acts and scenes take place inside the livingroom/dining area barring events at the doorway and when Ceri and Anya dance to some music sat in the orchard which Rainey interrupts drunkenly later on.
Instead of a cherry orchard it’s an apple orchard.
It is set in Pembrokeshire, South Wales beginning in later March 1982, as the 1st of April (All Fool’s Day) is mentioned in one of the later acts leading everyone to believe George is joking about getting a job though he’s always been ‘a gentleman of leisure’.
The play opens on Lewis lying asleep across the sofa with his muddy boots dirtying the floor, Dottie as a joke puts lipstick on his lips and part of the opening, after Valerie helps him take his boots off, is spent with people commenting on it as he worries Dottie kissed him and secretly has affection towards him.
Dottie seems far more cynical and bitter than the servants of the original. ‘Welsh humour’ they’ll claim but I could see another production using this script making her far less likeable as it’s such a fine line to tread.
Rainey doesn’t have a young lover but has remained living in a hotel in London since her son’s drowning (though I don’t think it’s stated explicitly).
Valerie is still adopted and in this version it is never really discussed fully save that Valerie was happy with the family she had been initially put with and resented being taken away by Rainey initially.
Rainey and Anya, who has been studying in London, return at the same time independent of each other.
Valerie and Lewis are engaged to be married and worry about telling Rainey about it (thus the assumptions of the original are made explicit). Therefore at no point does she say that if she had money she would move as far away from him as possible in the original as far as I recall but it’s said here for drama.
Instead of holiday cottages it is their household which will become a hotel with Valerie as the hotel manager, Lewis the owner and Dottie retained (though she refuses as she wants to do something else with her life).
Ceri was Anya’s tutor not the unnamed (Grisha) son’s tutor. He doesn’t insist on seeing Rainey and in fact it’s by coincidence of timing they meet when he was visiting. In fact their reunion is a someone pleasant one with her flirting with him and no mention of her son’s death.
Anya and Valerie don’t have a conversation about their mother’s debts as it is already apparent even before her arrival. What does perhaps change is Rainey says she had money but only realised after staying in a hotel how much the cost was over time.
Much of Act II’s beginning is excised as the servant character’s have been reduced to Dottie who seems quite satisfied with her working class manner.
Ceri’s decloration of his political beliefs is usually only to Anya and even then trivialized by her.
At no point does George allude to billiards.
There is no passing vagrant for Rainey to give all her money to so Valerie’s frustrations are regarding her excessive drinking and the bills she ran up in London with no concept of how hard it has been to keep the estate running in her absence. Rainey giving Dottie her wedding ring may replace this but is placed far later in the play.
Generally Lewis, though initially a figure of mockery, is presented as the only antagonistic figure in the play as he combines the aspects of contrasting characters.
Anya doesn’t vow to leave her old life behind and in fact seems determined to retain it. But she does inform Ceri she had a girlfriend at university and it’s left vague if they remain a couple at the end.
The most distinct difference is there is no party but rather Rainey getting more and more drunk before the contract signing deadline prior to the auction instead. Everyone takes this as her either having her fun while she still can torment them or that she is doing it so, should she sign, it won’t be legally binding.
As Rainey has no lover in Paris/London that aspect never comes up so she has no need to leave though she wishes to as there is nothing left for her here. Instead she tells of how her husband died in a car crash while drunk and she was drunk on the beach and didn’t save her son who drowned.
Ceri doesn’t fall down any stairs but he does discuss music with Anya as they dance around a record player outside in the orchard and she informs him she isn’t in love with him and what they have at the moment is just a summer fling which hurts him before she puts on a song to mock his feelings and try to break him out of his sorrow from being rejected.
Lewis and Valerie (or is it Ceri and Anya?) go out to chop down a tree.
Most of the second part involves trying to get Rainey (barefoot, scantily clad in a silk nighty and robe usually carrying a wine glass looking to replenish it, to sign the contract before, in frustration Lewis rips it up as it’s worthless if she is drunk and able to deny responsibility. However a second copy is acquired and she signs it so the auction occurs and Lewis comes and lauds it over everyone declaring his intentions to make the estate a hotel and everyone work there if they wish to with Valerie as the hotel manager. She doesn’t like the idea and instead intends to set up a flavoured yoghurt company for herself which surprises him.
Apart from George who had already declared happily he had got himself a job in stocks trading thus isn’t reticent like Gayev in the original. Everyone thought it was an April Fool’s joke but in fact he was telling the truth. He offers Dottie a job as his housekeeper it seems but in fact it’s more. He wants her to be his lover but she is repulsed and refuses having decided to do something other than housework.
Rainey, sad that Dottie is like a daughter to her having been with the family so long, gives her the wedding ring she had worn on a chain around her neck since her husband’s death. Dottie recounts how her mother, dying of cancer, went to work and took her along hence how Dottie began working for the family herself. Dottie refuses the ring but Rainey insists. Later George returns it to Rainey having been given it by Dottie who has now left the family’s service.
Thus Rainey and Anya are returning to London. Ceri is back where he was. Lewis has a hotel to build while his future wife, Valerie, establishes a yoghurt company. Dottie has gone off to another job. George is now on a stocks trader. Ceri… presumably is exactly where he was to begin with as his political views mean nothing and Anya considered him no more than a play thing.
In the adaption the play ends with the ghost of Rainey’s son [Grisha] having been left behind with the end of the family home to enter the consumerist lifestyles of the 1980s. This occurs instead of the old servant Firs being left behind and apparently dying on stage as a symbol of the end of the Imperial age.
The changes can at times seem subtle and appropriate updates but some seem needless. ‘Oh Anya had a lesbian relationship – how thoroughly modern!’ In fact that is the most notable one, in terms of its intrinsic message, really and seems a subtle dig at the perception of Russia’s official view of teaching homosexuality to children which ha been blown out of proportion. We actually had a similar law in the 80s so her relationship at that time would have been highly controversial (but not illegal as it was in preceding decades) especially due to the Aids epidemic at the time which makes her mention of it so casually highly unrealistic for the setting even for a libertine. Aids was called ‘the gay plague’ and homosexuality really was demonised in the conservative media at the time so the scriptwriter’s inclusion of it is either in order to be politically correct for a modern audience’s sensibilities or he has somehow forgotten that era of history he himself lived through here.
There are 1980s songs played at the end of scenes and when they cut in it’s incredibly loud! Imagine if a speaker is suddenly switched on right next to your head half way into a chorus. It was hard for anyone to not suddenly jump each time.
The costumes are of course variants of the 1980s style but have allusions to period collars or patterns people would associate with the Russia of Chekov’s era. It’s most obvious towards the end of the play when the floral embroidered patterns appear prominently on people’s clothing but felt a nice inclusion in order to distance the production yet still pay it’s dues to the original’s setting.
They changed the ending so instead of the old servant Firs lying down lamenting everyone has left him behind we get the ghost of Rainey’s dead son running on stage calling out to her at the end. The presence of everyone’s memory of him in the household is alluded to by a toy train rolling out from beneath the sofa and so they might as well have repeated that image rather than have a boy, unseen and unheard throughout the rest of the play, run out on stage. It seemed arbitrary and no doubt cost the production unnecessarily. If this production was revised I think the toy train moving again is more than enough. Who was the boy actor? He is mentioned nowhere and almost feels like a little cameo for someone to cast their own child in a nepotistic move. Then again you have that tradition of not naming the actors of ghost characters in other productions like The Lady In Black so it’s not a massive issue really but just feels extraneous.
Lewis and Valerie are explicitly connected almost immediately from the start rather than, in the original Chekov play, everyone assuming they will get together but it’s never confirmed. If they’re not then it may suggest that they too have moved on from each other into a new future as everyone else has. The adaption subverts Chekov’s version in that sense as their equivalent in the original were perhaps the most representative of the new age so now instead they’re the most traditional figures in the play. Albeit with Valerie’s desire to start her own business aside from the hotel it’s not a happy union even before their marriage. Intentional or not that seems the case as everyone else, barring maybe Ceri, subverts the traditional expectations or even those of people familiar with the original where Anya and Trofimov are still in a relationship by the end (if I recall correctly).
Instead of a cherry orchard it’s an apple orchard. Cherry trees are often seen as symbols of sadness or regret at the passing away of a certain situation or of the times in general especially in Japan where they’re often associated with the passing from youth to a more mature world or the loss of innocence. In a general sense you could say the apple carries the same imagery as it’s often depicted as the fruit of wisdom in the garden of Eden which Eve ate thus leading to a loss of innocence and fall from grace. However apples throughout Welsh mythology carry a different association. For example ‘the isle of apples’ better known as Avalon where King Arthur slumbers until Britain needs him again in its darkest hour. Therefore suddenly it’s not a loss but an anticipation for a return that is implied by the setting – except it is the end of an era so taking that symbolism it’s an extra layer of bitterness added on top of all the other alterations already made to create darker tones within the play.
Arguably the retention of the original title and yet change of the orchard’s produce makes no difference symbolically, if you somehow accept it’s set in Wales but ignore Welsh symbolism, but it is something that can be seen under analysis which adds to the further ‘grim dark’ alterations already made. Thus a predominantly comedic play turns into a more austere drama with moments of levity provided by dry humourous comments. The play comes across more emotionally detached than the original despite it being a modernised adaption.
It’s not the first adaption of a Chekov play to relocate events to Wales. Anthony Hopkins adapted ‘Autumn’ from ‘Uncle Vanya’. I did see Hopkins’ adaption at the New Theatre when it was performed but of course that was decades ago so and I don’t remember the film adaption that was also made. The Cherry Orchard I feel takes more risks with the themes but I can’t say it does much positive with them. For example with the exchange regarding Thatcher Ceri has far fewer lines than Lewis who seems to spend at least two acts recounting how his views are the correct perception with little challenge. The worst challenge he receives is Valerie wanting to establish her yoghurt company instead of working in the hotel and that only further drives the ‘capitalism is great’ narrative.
If anything Ceri’s challenges are portrayed as nonsense though of course in the original they were eventually deemed as a forerunner to Bolshevik/revolutionary views and censored during the later Tsarist years. Now in this version it’s almost as if the playwright is confirming the bias of the middle class, well off, student audience who have drifted towards conservative views in recent years while the left-wing is made more and more a caricature of screeching reactionaries in the mass media as often typified as SJWs or latterday Communists waving the communist flags without understanding real world poticial history associated with it. Of course that isn’t portrayed in the play. Instead we get Anya toying with his affections, him being the butt of many jokes as he follows her like a love sick puppy out of scenes and spouting off political rhetoric of little substance beyond his surface level, leather jacket wearing, aesthetic.
The play endorses the 1980s perception of the film Wall Street’s ‘greed is good’ mantra espoused by its villain protagonist Gordon Gecko, which people misinterpreted as a literal validation of capitalism and not a satirical condemnation of such views. Everyone wants something. Objects are the focus of many scenes, especially the ornate bookcase made by a craftsman and the lament it’s going to be replaced by flat pack furniture from now on, on top of conversations about finances and societal positions but where the working class characters seem far more cruel and judgemental than the elites. It almost makes them the victims if not for how things seem to turn out by the end.
The play is more concerned with aesthetics than earnest beliefs. The facade of love, the facade of respectability, the facade of intelligence and integrity. No one in this adaptation truly believes in anything which seems a warped interpretation of the original’s message swapping accepting societal change in the original for the adaption’s ineffectual use of facades where things have appeared to change but they don’t really. The character’s circumstances have changed but they themselves are still the same as they were at the start of the play.
If this was made in the 1980s that would be fine as that was the mass consumerist mindset of the era but having been made now, over quarter of a century later, we see no real reflection on the era and how it has now lead to any number of social issues as a result of what happened then. Anya’s flippant joking of her sexuality certainly would have been a much more serious matter at the time and not something you could just express in a passing line of dialogue to portray her as a free spirit. However it could also serve to show how disconnected from the reality of the rest of society that she treats the matter so lightly when it was a source of much social debate at the time in the media.
Where in the original it was a comedy with dramatic elements about societal change this production in the end is more a screed to how little things change. The well off, like George, will remain well off even if they don’t get everything they want, while those who are servants will always remain so. Lewis may be a hotel owner in future but he will still be serving the guests of the hotel and never truly a master in his own right as even Valerie will be doing her own thing starting a business of her own which will no doubt lead her to spend little time with him. The family home is gone but the family no longer exists anyway and everyone is better off going their own way. If that is the intended message it’s an incredibly cruel and bitter one…
No matter how much money and status Lewis had he will always be socially lower tier than the now poorer, yet still of the socially elite, family. Even if they don’t have the estate they still have their class which will ensure doors are open to them and hypergamy is always an option.
There are various modernisations but the core narrative and themes lose nothing in the translation at a surface level but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I can see purists and those who reflect on the adaption taking issue though it’s an adaption experimenting with the original and is not just in name only thankfully.
If I’m honest the ‘better spoken’ members of the cast, especially Anya, sounded like they had stepped off the set of the first three Harry Potter films as the received pronunciation English used was so sharp and therefore artificial sounding. To me that exact accent is as profoundly unrealistic as the artificially acquired trans/mid-Atlantic accent American actors had in 1930-50s Hollywood films. Meanwhile of course the Welsh accents too are played up leaving only Rainey and George sounding natural. I don’t know if that was intentional or not really. Of course as a comedy, or more so drama due to the alterations here, the caricaturisation is somewhat embellished anyway.
The sudden turns to drama, usually revolving around Rainey’s recalling the deaths of her husband and son but also Valerie’s resentment at being torn from an adopted family she loved to be Rainey’s daughter and Dottie talking about how she hates being in service and being introduced to it when her mother was dying as if being trained as her replacement all feel a little too forced if melodramatically dissonant. In a play that seems so focused on themes of societal change, moving on and accepting this adaption dwells on past suffering to a maudlin extent.
As it’s set in 1980s Wales of course Margaret Thatcher is mentioned. For Ceri she is an evil figure but for Lewis she is a saint as he repeatedly mentions the ‘Right to Buy’ law she passed allowing people to buy their council house homes at a discount of its actual value. Right to Buy is coming to an end as it’s led to people doing exactly what Lewis suggested by buying house after house and letting them out for insane profit.
He is challenged on this and how it will tarnish the family estate’s reputation though he tells them it won’t be their’s anymore. They compare it to making it like a council estate which of course Dottie takes an exception to suggesting she, from a council estate herself, is lesser than them though they’re the ones in debt selling their land off.
So our perspective as an audience is at once challenged without there being a clear right and wrong. It will return the orchard land to residential property land as it was in the time of Lewis’ grandfather but it is the end of an era and lifestyle for Rainey’s family. To Rainey it’s the loss of her father’s work to establish the orchard. To Anya the orchard, for her lifetime at least, has always been an orchard. For Valerie it’s the end of the estate she kept running and will ultimately give up on once Lewis turns it into a hotel.
Therefore the themes of change seem to be changed in fact to one of loss only the more reinforced by our final moments with it being the dead son’s return to try to find a mother who has left him behind. The tone therefore is in fact far darker ultimately than the original play. That shouldn’t come as a surprise as it’s a re-imagining by Gary Owen and anyone familiar with his previous work will be aware of his previous works’ tones.
I liked it when I saw it and it was an excellent production. However the script does seem needlessly dour the more you reflect on the changes. I know initially Chekov apparently wanted to write serious plays but people were finding humour in them and then sometimes people would view comedies as tragedies or vice versa… I think this adaption definitely wants to be on the more dark side of things but the natural humour of the original still found a way to seep into it. It’s good. I would see it again. I just find the scriptwriter Gary Owen tries a bit too hard at times to discuss the darker side of humanity in his works to the point it could easily become a farce in some people’s hands.
Should Gary Owen’s adaption of the play ever get another run in future it is essential viewing for both those familiar and unfamiliar with the original. Highly recommended!