During the current period three YouTube Channels are broadcasting entire theatrical shows for free. They generally start at 7PM BST on certain weeknights but the videos will remain on the channels for 7 days afterwards before being taken down as something else is uploaded.
So far: Twelfth Night, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Frankenstein (both versions with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature), Anthony and Cleopatra.
The lists I’ve provided, of what have been shown so far, are by no means conclusive. They are only the ones I know have been shown recently. There are many clips on the channels if you wan to check out other productions by the organisations and, at least for the National Theatre, interesting ‘behind the scenes’ videos about the production process.
The organisations offer these broadcasts, for free, in hope of donations to support the theatre community.
“One minute we had customers, the next minute
there was no-one.”
In a lost village, blurred by redrawn borders,
hidden under a crumb on the map, Bear Ridge Stores still stands.
After a hundred years, the family butchers and grocers – a place for
odds and ends, contraband goods, and the last petrol pump for 30
miles – is now silent. But owners John Daniel and Noni are going
nowhere. They are defiantly drinking the remaining whiskey and
remembering good times, when everyone was on the same side and the
old language shone. Outside in the dark, a figure is making their way
One of Wales’ most celebrated writers, Ed Thomas (co-creator of Hinterland) makes a momentous return to the stage with this semi-autobiographical story about the places we leave behind, the indelible marks they make on us, and the unreliable memories we hold onto.
Writer Ed Thomas
Co-directors Vicky Featherstone & Ed
Designer Cai Dyfan
Composer John Hardy
Sound Designer Mike Beer
Noni: Rakie Ayola
The Captain: Jason Hughes
John Daniel: Rhys Ifans
Ifan William: Sion Daniel Young
World Premiere in Sherman Theatre‘s Main House
National Theatre Wales and Royal Court Theatre
Performed in English (though there are a few Welsh words present e.g. bara brith).
Contains strong language, scenes of an adult
nature, loud noises & gun shots
Running time: Approx. 95 minutes (no interval)
I saw it on 25 September 2019 at 7.30pm.
I usually give quite
detailed, near exhaustive, accounts of a narrative but I feel due to
how new this play is it would be a disservice to do so. I will just
give a general outline for those who want it. A lot of the impact is
in the dialogue and performance of this play, so much so it could
easily be adapted for radio, so it may seem relatively uneventful.
It’s an allegorical narrative regarding the playwright’s memories of
his community and concerns about the challenges the Welsh language
and culture face both from the past and going forward when there are
so many foreign influences, most notably that of England. I probably
have forgotten certain elements or omit them intentionally in the
following paragraphs so there are some things for you to experience
A man, John Daniel, awakens in the remnants of his burnt out butcher’s shop after an aerial carpet bombing raid. He laments he is all alone now in the dark as snow falls about him. He begins to recount the birth of his son with his wife Noni and how proud he was. (I’ve forgotten the son’s name ironically but he does have one).
We then see him and his wife waving their butcher’s cleavers as planes fly overhead. They condemn that they don’t know if they’re on their side or against them during an ongoing war. A war that apparently ended decades ago yet still seems to affect them currently. They then spend a while discussing how their community at Bear Ridge has dwindled as they relive the memories of their past both in terms of recalling their customers, food and events. Their young slaughterman Ifan William comes from out of the trapdoor and goes into the fridge and returns to the underground slaughterhouse after some brief chatter. The couple continue their discussion once he has left reciting their mantra of foodstuffs happily to each other relishing the memories.
As the couple are
dancing to a repeating song on the radio a captain, who was involved
in the ongoing war, walks into their shop and holds them at gunpoint
not sure if they are friend or foe. Once reassured he chats with them
and says the song reminded him of his mother and youth. He recounts a
number of things, including how his commanding officer gave him the
order to clear the mountain before then shooting herself to his
shock. Eventually he gains the couple’s confidence. They discuss
memories and ‘the old language’ which only John Daniel now knows how
to speak but laments he is forgetting. He only remembers it because
he remembers speaking it to others but they’re all in the past so all
he has are his memories with which to keep the language alive. His
son spoke it fluently, Noni learned some but he is ultimately alone
now in knowing it which throws him into despair.
Suddenly the captain is on edge when Ifan William comes from out of the trap door again. He demands to know why they didn’t tell him of this third person. ‘You never asked’ John Daniel replies drily. Ifan William recounts his childhood growing up and going to university with the now dead son of the couple. The son went to university and was very progressive, philosophical and wanted to keep the ‘old language’ alive. However the son and Ifan William (who the son taught Welsh) were beaten by others one day in the street accusing them of being Germans and other nationalities though they were not as these aggressors didn’t recognise the old language of their own country and assumed the worst (the identity of the characters in the play as native Welsh people is never explicitly stated but some words and phrases dotted throughout the dialogue suggest this along with the distinctly Welsh naming styles of the characters). The son died in the war and had so much potential the characters who knew him lament. Ifan William admits he truly loved their son and their son loved him (to the degree it’s implied to have been romantic in nature but this too is never made explicit). John Daniel silently embraces Ifan William for their mutual loss.
The captain, after offering Ifan William a swig from his canteen, again recounts his memories. How he was ordered to clear the mountain by a commanding officer who then killed herself immediately afterwards in front of him having fulfilled her duty. The couple refuse to leave, despite being the only people left, as this is where they belong as does Ifan William. The captain tells them he is on the same side as them. Noni, agitated by such a broad declaration, asks if he really is or not and compares it to a river where there are two sides – the side they are on and the other side. People who want to swim over can try but the current is strong and deep many drown in the effort (as if referring to the Severn river which acts as both the physical and metaphysical division between the Welsh and English identities). She asks the captain again if he really is on their side or not. He insists he is. Now they’re all assured Noni offers to make tea and the captain excuses himself asking to go to the bathroom. John Daniel says it’s around the corner, behind the rocks, outside the building (actually it may have been in the building but the actor exits the stage via the rear). The captain leaves silently.
Ifan William enters
carrying a tray piled high with a china tea service. The couple and
Ifan William sit down to drink. A single gun shot rings out
(presumably the captain coming to the same conclusion his commander
did and committing suicide). Nothing is said. No one reacts. They sit
in silence drinking their tea and then, once everyone is content, a
plane flies overhead and it suddenly cuts to black and it seems a
bomb was finally dropped on Bear Ridge to clear it.
Arguably this loops back to the start of the play though you could also read the beginning as John Daniel lamenting his isolation as the only person who knows the old language… which he truly is if the play loops back to that opening scene as his wife (who was a learner), his son (who was fluent) and Ifan William (who was, I think, semi-fluent) are all now gone leaving him truly alone both in his memories, knowledge and physically.
I won’t go into great
detail. They’re all dressed in the manner one would expect of people
left with little to sustain themselves during an ongoing conflict
with few if any supplies available over a long time.
John Daniel is dressed
in a worn jumper and the white, but now grubby and worn, coat of a
butcher with an orange gilet over it. Around his ankles are scraps of
cloth over his worn boots. A shaggy beard and overall dishevelled
state indicate he has little time to pretend like he is at all at
peace with life to attend to such things. Not just due to the
situation they find themselves in but it seems like he’s always been
a bit like this and the gilet is, as explained during a piece of
dialogue, a birthday resent from his wife and the only clean thing on
him. Life weighs heavy on his shoulders.
Noni wears an apron and
cardigan with a tattered skirt and hobnail boots. Even in these bad
times it’s evident she tries her best to maintain normality by taking
care of herself appearance wise unlike her husband.
Ifan William is young and his clothes are relatively clean with little sign of wear. They are also of a much more modern, casual sportswear, design compared to those of John Daniel and Noni who, in comparison, could be from a hundred years ago or yesterday in their style of dress (except for the gilet which seems to act like a life vest keeping John Daniel afloat in modern times). The only dirt on the young man’s clothing is the dried, caked, blood from the job he does on his butcher’s apron. His beard and hair are relatively well trimmed in comparison to his wild, mountain man, looking employer John Daniel.
The captain has outerwear of a military design. I would say it reflects the clothing of a First World War office in the trenches but I believe it is meant to evoke a timeless militaristic style really. He wears heavy boots, a serviceman’s belt of pouches and a holster with his service revolver. A large, thick, scarf is wrapped around his neck obscuring any signs of a uniform and he wears a full length woollen, olive drab coloured, trench coat so little else is visible on his person beneath it.
Throughout the play the floor is covered in a light layer of fake snow as though the interior and exterior of the butcher’s shop is gutted.
There are three walls
to represent the interior of the shop. On the left wall is a cupboard
where Noni keeps the trinkets she has collected and which spill out
at the start of the play. On the right is a fridge door which when
opened lets the actor walk through as if entering a room sized
fridge. Again this too is featured at the start of the play but
neither plays any purpose besides establishing the characters of Noni
and Ifan William.
The rear wall is in
fact technically two pieces which sit either side of a green door
frame and door. These are the shop front, gutted by a previous bomb
explosion it can be assumed, and a broken window. The door itself is
intact with a ‘sorry we are closed’ sign on it and a set of lace
curtain netting across it. These are all removed about half way
through the run time once everyone is, presumably, stood outside.
A pile of broken school
desks and furniture sits left of centre representing all the
furniture they’ve had to break up for firewood during the ongoing
harsh weather conditions on the mountain without any outside aid
arriving. Hidden within this pile are two milk crates used for seats
at certain points of the play. Ifan William later uses a tin box as a
stool too which I think he brings up from the trapdoor.
Beyond the ‘shop’ are
black, dead, trees and high piles of rock to represent the mountain
range. A path leads behind the rocks which is where the captain goes,
off stage, at the end of the play.
The backdrop is a
curved white sheet lit in a manner to give the illusion of a heavy
misty skyline beyond which nothing can be seen. It becomes brightly
lit when planes fly over to silhouette the characters against it.
Overall I feel it’s very effective though I question if you could actually reduce the staging to be even more minimalist to be honest as so much of the play is in fact grounded in it’s dialogue rather than actions. Throughout the only ‘actions’ that occur are the couple wave their tools at the planes flying overhead once or twice cursing at them, an overfilled cupboard spilling, the couple dance, the captain firing his gun in frustration, Ifan William going in and out of the trapdoor, in and out of the fridge and later kicking up some dust, John Daniel when lamenting the loss of the old language scrabbling about creating a dust storm in frustration and the tea service being brought on at the end of the play. In fact you could even embellish it if you wanted to be honest without detracting from the core dynamics of the play.
The allegorical play begins with an incredibly strong echo of Dylan Thomas’ lyrical dialogue style most notably heard in Under Milk Wood when John Daniel and Noni begin reciting a list of customers and the foodstuffs they sold and enjoyed in the past as if relishing and being nourished by the language and memories they share.
Throughout John Daniels
has a phrase he often uses ‘no, you’re alright’ when he wants to
assure others or dismiss something troubling. You could reflect he
says this because he himself is not alright though I’ve often heard
fellow Welshmen, admittedly of an older generation, use the phrase in
the same tone Rhys Ifans uses where it is more akin to ‘I don’t
approve but I accept the situation at hand’. There is a lot of the
dour Welsh humour present in the play and I wonder if non-Welsh
people will ‘get it’. Only when it’s performed in England will we
know. I’m sure they will but sometimes it does seem people unfamiliar
with that Welsh style of humour feel it can be harsh hence the
stereotype some hang onto of us being isolationist when in reality we
are very warm towards visitors.
Noni is a difficult
character to categorise. She collects trinkets, she laments her sons
death and she loves her husband who it seems is notably older than
her. The only real information we get about her past, her memories,
tends to be through John Daniels recounting the birth of his son and
his first encounter with Noni where they both knew they were meant to
be together. She fits the Welsh archetype of a valleys girl, that is
to say bubbly, chatty, but not afraid of confronting people she
doesn’t agree with, however it feels she has the least substance
presented to the audience. She seems secondary to the male characters
and even her dead son whose ghost echoes throughout the memories of
the others. While it can be said that there’s an element of this
enforcing traditional stereotypes of women place being in the shadow
of the men in their lives it’s not as simple as that in Wales. We
have been a soft matriarchy throughout history so a woman being quiet
and ‘knowing her place’ is quite alien to us and only crept into our
culture through the influences of the English. So there’s an
underlying question regarding her character where arguably she is the
most conformist of the ‘native’ characters but we don’t have a chance
to explore that aspect of her characterisation during the plays run
time and it has to be portrayed via the actress’ mannerisms more so
than the dialogue.
Ifan William has two
scenes, one at the start is somewhat light hearted and merely acts as
a set up for the sudden shift in tone towards the end. The actor has
some great material to work with as he confesses his feeling to John
Daniel and Noni about their son. It could feel a bit laboured by a
less skilled actor so to see the shift of the character from somewhat
lackadaisical to heart-rendingly broken by his memories really
delivers a contrast to John Daniel and Noni. The older characters
recount happy times in the past and bemoan their current
circumstances while here the younger man finds trauma in the past
but, having survived an assault by bigots, seems to thrive in the
current circumstances having found his place in the world. So through
him we have elements of discussion regarding the ‘truth’ of cultural
heritage and the effects of rose tinted memories on passing it to the
next generation. While John Daniel speaks of a united community under
one language Ifan William presents the harsh reality of conflicting
cultures and of prejudice which isn’t acknowledged by the older
The captain, in
contrast to the other characters, is notably different sounding not
just in accent but diction and phrasing. He is an outsider but I feel
the role is being played far too safely so as not to feel jarring
when contrasted with the other characters tonally. If anything I
would actually like the play to be a bit more bold in this to truly
challenge the audience in the later part when he is asked if he is
‘on our side’ or not so they question if he is sincere or playing
along for survival. The actor performs the role well but I feel maybe
there needs to be some work on the role. Whether it’s to make him
more of an outsider conflicting with the other characters or truly
get across his desire to be on their side by gradually emulating
As it is I assume the
intention is for the audience to decide for themselves his motives
and values by the end of the play’s events. Does he shoot himself
just to repeat history as his commanding officer did; did he do it
because, despite his words, he truly couldn’t be on their side
despite his intentions as he lacked the language and other cultural
aspects to do so; was it because he didn’t seek to become like them.
Could it even be the case we should interpret his behaviour as PTSD
where he keeps reliving the moment he saw his commanding officer
shoot herself, after giving him his orders, thus leaving him to
wander in a liminal state somewhere between constantly reliving that
memory as a soldier and incapable of reacclimatising to civil society
(as is the case for many servicemen who suffer trauma during their
I think my overall
question about him is, PTSD possibility aside, whether he was a
soldier carrying out his duty, but faltered when the opposition was
given a face, or a refugee like figure trying to escape the war and
‘join’ the others in their world view of not being defined by the
conflict. He feels vaguely defined and I’m not completely certain
that was intentional to the degree it appears. Although, in fairness,
we never learn his name and it is certain he was meant to be
culturally ‘othered’ to the shared culture and history of the other
three characters as an outsider.
The staging is good but
perhaps needs some refining as I noted when discussing it earlier. At
times when a sense of claustrophobia is required it feels there is a
bit too much space inside the shop’s interior and yet when they’re
meant to be stood outside it feels far too claustrophobic ironically.
I’m not sure if that’s because the Sherman’s stage wasn’t quite right
for their planned layout but maybe on smaller stages the rubble on
the sides (which I omitted from the stage plan though it remains
throughout the performance) could be removed to give them more space
in the later parts of the play. I only say this as there is a moment
later in the play when John Daniels is meant to walk away from the
others to ‘speak the old language to the moon’ but unfortunately he
is barely 3 metres away on the stage. In fact Rhys gave a cheeky look
to the audience at this point as if acknowledging it. Perhaps for
that moment he can go onto the ‘mountain path’ the captain later uses
leading backstage instead as that would be more effective? It’s an
minor issue to be honest.
The performances are excellent but certainly I feel there might be a need to work on the pacing of dialogue or where to emphasis certain lines as sometimes there were moments of speaking over each other with little narrative purpose for it. Also while the characters are distinct I feel there needs to be more confidence in the delivery by the captain as he doesn’t seem as affected nor distinct from the others as he needs to be. As much as none of us wants to see overacting I do feel for John Daniel and Noni to fit the Welsh archetypes they are referencing they may need to be slightly more embellished with John Daniel having a slightly more intense manner with some pregnant pauses possibly.
I understand why the
performance choices were made however part of me feels, when the play
moves onto the Royal Court Theatre, it’s been done early to ‘tone
down’ the Welshness to be more accessible and that feels
counter-intuitive considering what the message of this play seems to
be. I’ve seen that done in translation of various works to localise
things but it never feels like a good idea in the long run. In effect
it seems to have caused a Welsh playwright, writing about Welsh
cultural matters obliquely, to ‘other’ his message in his own work as
if self censoring which speaks volumes about how entrenched the
cultural persecution of the Welsh culture and language is in our
mindset as a nation.
Part of me feels the
refusal to actually name Wales or Welsh in any form is possibly part
of the narrative in the sense it is self censorship as the ‘Welsh
Not’ was in the classroom for a time in the early twentieth century.
However it also in effect makes the play more universal while still
retaining the irrefutable inclusion of Welsh things such as the
characters’ naming (except the captain who is only known by his
military rank title and never his personal name), a reference to bara
brith and other elements which seem all too obvious in context to a
Welsh audience but might not to a different culture if there was a
foreign production of the play. (e.g. how Welsh seems part of the
‘Elder Speech language’ in the Polish fantasy literature series The
Witcher and it’s adaptions going as far as the card card in it being
Wales has a number of Welsh playwrights who, when doing work for television, are lauded and award winning yet to set a play in Wales seems to ghettoise it unlike if you set it in England. Perhaps that’s just me recalling my issues with Niall Griffith’s novel ‘Sheepshagger’ which felt like it could have been set in England’s west country or elsewhere rurally without losing anything as it’s so devoid of inherent ‘Welshness’ unlike this play.
I fear, in later productions, this play might have the Welsh elements edited out of it to localise it and thus lose its inherent message. As I said with my review of Gary Owen’s adaption of The Cherry Orchard, which localised Chekov’s play to 1980s Wales, there is a risk of losing part of a message or altering it in adaption which I dearly hope doesn’t occur here as discussion of the trials Wales has faced in maintaining its culture seem to be muted whenever presented to a wider audience. Certainly in my experience few people from other countries know much about us without it being tinged by English imperialism to the point they assume we are part of England and not a separate entity.
There is great
potential here but as I’ve seen it so early in it’s run I feel
everyone is still finding their stride in their performances and no
doubt, should you go see it, they’ll have worked out those nuances so
what is already a thoroughly enjoyable, evocative, play about
identity will become a modern classic. Already it is getting high
praise and, despite the critical tone of this review at times, I
thoroughly recommend seeing it!
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!
Performance seen at Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) on 30/09/2017.
Performed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) company.
An opera, subtitled a ‘national music drama’, in five acts by ModestMussorgsky. The work was written between 1872 and 1880 in St.Petersburg, Russia. The composer wrote the libretto based on historical sources however the opera was unfinished and unperformed when the composer died in 1881.
Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history concerning the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Muscovite Streltsy (Russian guardsmen from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, armed with firearms) against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna and the two young Czars Peter the Great (Peter I) and Ivan V, who were attempting to institute Westernising reforms in Russia. Khovansky had helped to foment the Moscow Uprising of 1682, which resulted in Sofia becoming regent on behalf of her younger brother Ivan and half-brother Peter, who were crowned joint Czars. In the fall of 1682 Prince Ivan Khovansky turned against Sofia. Supported by the Old Believers and the Streltsy, Khovansky, who supposedly wanted to install himself as the new regent, demanded the reversal of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Sofia and her court were forced to flee Moscow. Eventually, Sofia managed to suppress the so-called Khovanshchina (Khovansky affair) with the help of the diplomat Fyodor Shaklovity, who succeeded Khovansky as leader of the Muscovite Streltsy. Finally with the rebellion crushed, the Old Believers committed mass suicide (in the opera, at least).
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. Because of his extensive cuts and recomposition, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.
Although the background of the opera comprises the Moscow Uprising of 1682 and the Khovansky affair a few months later, its main themes are the struggle between progressive and reactionary political factions during the minority of Czar Peter the Great and the passing of old Muscovy before Peter’s westernising reforms. It received its first performance in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition in 1886.
Strings: violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, double basses
Song: “A maiden wandered”, «Исходила младёшенька» (Marfa)
Aria: “The Streltsy nest sleeps”, «Спит стрелецкое гнездо» (Shaklovitïy)
Scene 4 — Khovansky’s Palace
Ballet: “Dance of the Persian Slaves”, «Пляски персидок» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “A young swan swims”, «Плывет, плывет лебедушка» (Maidens, Shaklovitïy, Ivan Khovansky)
Scene 5 — Red Square
Introduction “The Departure of Golitsïn”, Вступление «Поезд Голицына» (Orchestra, Chorus)
Chorus: “Show them no mercy”, «Не дай пощады» (Streltsï Wives, Streltsï, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa)
March: “March of the Preobrazhensky Regiment”, «Марш преображенцев» (Orchestra)
Scene 6 — Hermitage
Aria: “Here, in this holy place”, «Здесь, на этом месте» (Dosifey)
Historical basis of the plot
The death of the young Czar Fyodor III has left Russia with a crisis of succession. Supported by Prince Ivan Khovansky, Fyodor’s sickly brother Ivan, who is 16, and his half-brother Peter, who is only 10, have been installed as joint rulers, with their older sister Sofia acting as regent. Sofia has allied herself with Prince Vasily Golitsin, a powerful courtier and liberal politician, who is also her alleged lover. Peter, if you haven’t guessed, is the future Peter I a.k.a. Peter the Great who established the westernised city of St Petersburg as the new capital of Russia, instead of Moscow, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, westernised, and based on The Enlightenment. Peter’s reforms made a lasting impact on Russia and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign. So what is being explored in this opera are the last days of ‘old’ Russia and what might arguably be called the prelude to it’s golden era.
Due to regulations applicable at the time of the composition of the opera in Imperial Russia, it was forbidden to portray members of the Romanov dynasty on stage, so Mussorgsky had recourse to a series of symbols and indirect mention of main characters in the plot. Sofia, Ivan and Peter never actually appear on stage.
The principal theme of Khovanshchina is stated outright in the choral number “Akh, ty Rodnaya, Matushka Rus'” in Act I (“Woe to thee native, Mother Russia”), which laments that Russia is bleeding and dying not because of a foreign enemy, but because of fragmentation within.
Something like a three-way civil war is in progress, which basically compresses twelve years of Russian history into one telling. The Czarist court is modernizing, and two powerful forces are resisting these changes: the Streltsy and the Old Believers.
The Streltsy are decommissioned elite soldiers/guards (“Streltsy” literally means “shooters”, just like “musketeers”), past their prime and on indefinite furlough. They are fanatically loyal to Prince Ivan Khovansky.
The Old Believers are Russian Orthodox Christians who have left the state-sponsored church because they disagree with the Patriarch Nikon’s reforms; they also challenge the line of succession to the throne and have refused to recognize the Russian Patriarch. Their leader is Dosifey.
Fortunately for Czar Peter, these two factions despise each other, as the Streltsy are rowdy degenerates and the Old Believers are pious ascetics.
Each of the three principal basses in the opera believes himself to represent the “true” Russia against her internal enemies: Prince Ivan Khovansky claims legitimacy by noble birth and military prowess, Dosifey by religion, and Shaklovity by supporting Czar Peter.
As seems a trend with WNO productions, such as The Magic Flute, they colour code the different factions.
Red: Khovanshsky and his private army the Streltsy. Khovansky himself, to stand out, wears a great coat with a large red fur collar to distinguish him from others and denote his status.
White: Old Believers members
Grey: Citizens of Moscow, Emma, the Persian dancer (i.e. the victim’s of the other factions actions)
Gold: Liberal aristocracy i.e. Golitsin
Green military uniform with brown great coat: Shaklovity and the Czar’s soldiers
Black: denotes a servant role it seems thus are worn by people with influence existing somewhere between the common person and moral factions if not with divided loyalties.
What I find awkward about this colour coding choice in the production is that even a passing knowledge of Russian history tells you these colours carry significant relevance.
The red of the revolutionary force seems at first glance an obvious choice: Khovansky opposes the monarchy and the Bolshevik’s too did in the twentieth century. So far so good. Shaklovity in military colours again makes him distinct from others as someone morally ambiguous. Golitsin in gold as a liberal aristocrat is fitting.
Grey is used for the chorus in the first few acts, Emma (a maiden from the German quarter) and the Persian slaves of Prince Ivan Khovanky who are victims of the events around them and suffer for it. A neutral body neither white nor black morally they’re swept along in events with no ability to choose their destiny nor protect themselves from the consequence of the actions of the others. Of course the chorus changes throughout the performance to which ever scene requires them to represent Streltsy, Schismatics (Old Believers), Persian slaves or otherwise.
Black is used for functionaries and those who fall somewhere between the morality of the factions. Varsonofyev, Golitsin’s retainer, wears this colour but with gold piping to show his servitude, Marfa who torn between her love for Andrei Khovansky and as a schismatic (acting at times as a diviner to Golitsin) and the scrivener who seems swept up in events around him.
The issue then is the white used for Dosifey and the Old Believers. White is the colour of those who support the monarchy or at least are of nobility, for example the term white emigrefor those who left or were exiled during the revolution and the white army, and yet in this production it is used for the old believers who oppose the actions of their monarchs.
But what other choice is there? Well the robes of Russian Orthodox priests are black so they could have easily just used that colour (despite the Old Believers breaking away from the state endorsed church) and had the ‘servant’ roles be another colour. Certainly if anything Shaklovity, as a loyal follower of the monarchy, should have. out of everyone, be dressed in white if the production is determined to have the setting updated to the early twentieth century quasi-civil war setting. Perhaps it seems I am nitpicking. Certainly Marfa being one of the schismatics (old believers) isn’t clear until much later in the performance as the colour coding leads uninformed audience members astray.
Prince Ivan Khovansky: Robert Hayward
Prince Andrey Khovansky: Adrian Dwyer
Prince Vasily Golitsyn: Mark Le Brocq
Shaklovity: Simon Bailey
Dosifei: Miklos Sebestyen
Marfa: Sara Fulgoni
Susanna: Monika Sawa
Scribe: Adrian Thompson
Emma: Claire Wild
Varsonofev: Alastair Moore
Kuz’ka: Simon Crosby Buttle
Streshnev: Gareth Dafydd Morris
1st Strelets: Julian Boyce
2nd Strelets: Laurence Cole
Servant: Dimo Georgiev
Persian Slave: Elena Thomas
Conductor: Tomas Hanus
Director: David Pountney
Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour
Choreographer: Beate Vollack
Assistant Conductor: James Southall
Assistant Director: Benjamin Davis
Production manager: Robert Pagett
Musical Preparation: Segey Rybin
Staff Directors: Deborah Cohen, Polly Graham
Lighting Realised on Tour: Ian Jones
Language Coach: John Asquith
Stage Manager: Katie Heath-Jones
Deputy Stage Manager: Suzie Erith
Overall the permanent stage decoration is of a decimated city reflective of Stalingrad or the general western depiction of Soviet Russia where everything somehow looks like a post industrial wasteland from 1935 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Apparently the country lay in ruin for over half a century. I found that a disappointing stereotype to adhere to.
Ironically, during the 1990s, a number of areas did end up in a very run down state when the economy took a massive downturn until the millennium when it was revitalised again. Indeed a few areas are still in that state but they are the exception not the rule usually being sites that exist somewhere in the countryside left derelict. The only time a city such as the setting of the opera Moscow would be in this state was during war time. ‘But they’ve taken artistic license’ people will say to justify it. Yes and in the musical Billy Elliot they trivialise a very emotionally turbulent period of within living memory history for working class people in Britain for the amusement of the middle classes which trivialises the brutal conflicts between striking picket lines and police with irreverent song and dance number. Sometimes art offends intentionally to begin a dialogue and other times it does it through ignorance. The setting is not the Soviet union, as most audience members will assume, nor is it ‘mystic Russia’ as the launch event described it. It’s a caricature underplaying the brutal historical reality like pirates, cowboys and soldiers in children’s productions.
The designers obviously wanted an iconic image of early revolutionary Bolshevik led Soviet Russia and watched a lot of western produced films set in Russia during the Soviet era but mostly filmed elsewhere (Gorky Park, Child 44, Gulag, Silk Stockings, Ninotchka, etc) which all share the same grim grey and brown colour pallet to depict it as a post industrial hell – which in areas around factories and closed cities would be true as it is anywhere, but the impression in all these films is the entire country was like that – which means even over a quarter of a century after it’s end we still live with the propagandist image of the Soviet Union which is perpetuated by visual designers who type in Soviet Russia to a search engine, see Stalin era depictions in Western propaganda films and say ‘good enough’ and copy it. Unlike North Korea Russia doesn’t have an eternal leader and if they did it would definitely not be Stalin and, it should come as no surprise, the country did actually develop after Stalin’s death and not stagnant in the aesthetic of the Stalin era (although of course the Soviet Union had plenty of periods of stagnation in later decades but that’s a story for another time).
I just find it very awkward they depicted the setting like this when they seem to have chosen a quasi-civil war setting which inevitably reminds the audience of the real life conflict which occurred between the revolutionary Red Army against the monarchist White Army yet assigns the colours inappropriately. During the civil war the white army supported the Czar while in this production white represents those who oppose the Czar. The production covers a time period of about 12 years and apparently Moscow lay in ruins throughout that time. ‘Artistic license’ no doubt applies.
Below is a rough layout of the stage design.
In the layout graphic you see the grey steps upon which performers sit or lay.
The green pieces are the scribe desks which each have a small desk lamp to illuminate them.
The green diamond is the pillar with a light on top of it which the scribe is forced to climb, by Streltsy soldiers, to read what is written on it. A pile of books/papers spill out of it when the illiterate Streltsy are informed of what is written there.
The purple barrier is on an overpass above one of the access points to the stage.
The yellow chair and painting are used when Khovansky confronts the Golitsin about Sofia.
The red hexagon is the bath where Khovansky is killed.
The red circle represents the ball on which the Persian dancer performs nude (actually she has body paint/skin toned clothing I think but I was sat in the gods so it was hard to tell when she discarded her silk dress).
The white ramp is lowered in later scenes when Dosifey comes to speak to the other Old Believers and when Khovansky, now an old man, tells the Streltsy to go home and await their fate instead of fight when the Czar’s forced descend upon Moscow to eliminate them.
On the left side is a wall with empty windows in a waffle like shape. At the start of the play light is shone through the gaps to show the dawning of the opera’s events and at the end, to bookend the opera, as the building in which the Old Believer’s commit mass suicide. At this point a smoke machine is lowered from above and the followers bring heavy stage lamps onto the steps which illuminate in the final moment depicting them tableau like in death.
Things of particular note, both good and bad, during the Welsh National Opera (WNO) performance I saw.
The tower of leaflets in the first act which is opened and spills paper out across the floor is very effective in portraying the proliferation of knowledge the scribe causes by reading out the proclamation in Act I, scene iv.
The scribe, in act I, scene IV, and Emma in Act I, scene VI, are both bound with red chords to represent the social binding they both undergo through force by others. Sadly I don’t recall this being used again later so these come out as somewhat of an anomaly and I have to question why the idea wasn’t followed up with for later scenes.
When Golitsin is sent into exile he is carried lying on top of the painting used as the background of act ii. In his hand is a book he is reading while the actor, for dear life, hangs onto the side of the painting as he is angled towards the audience while pretending like he is relaxing. If you imagine some of the more naïve medieval depictions of saints which ignored realism you can image what this looked like. It was at one turn effective and yet oddly hilarious and I don’t think in this opera that was intentional.
In the mass suicide scene one person wouldn’t stop moving towards the back of the group. The smoke machine let out a little puff and that was it. It was on stage, hanging from the fly tower, for about 20 minutes only to do that. Or it may have meant to represent the thurible/censur used by Orthodox Christians but if so it still stands it produced only a slight puff of smoke and the staging of the scene makes you think they all just laid down rather than committed suicide via immolation.
I’m pretty sure the Russian pronunciation by some of the performers was off. The only one most would note is when someone, Shaklovity I believe, pronounces emphatically at the end of one line ‘Спасибо‘ as ‘spa-see-boh’ when the naturalised way so say it is ‘spa-see-bah’. I don’t know if it was the performer or the director who went with that. Either way it really took me out of it a few times. At the launch event it was noted ‘for time’ that The House of the Dead would be performed in English while Eugene Onegin and Khovanshchina would be performed in Russia. Part of me wishes they had done this in English as I suspect they performers are not all experienced in performing in Russian if they’ve mostly been called to do works in French, German or Italian as there are inevitably differences in the languages. It’s a little sad but not completely unexpected. The actual performances themselves were of a high standard desptie all my criticisms.
In the WNO production, during the Dance of the Persian Slaves they have a single dancer in a silk dress perform over Khovansky while he lays in his bathtub. She performs a number of gymnastic postures and such then removes her dress. She has body paint across her chest and, I assume, flesh tone knickers on (I was sat in the upper circle so for intent and purposes she seemed naked but there’s no indication she would be otherwise WMC put warnings about it anywhere on the production’s literature) then climbs on top of a ball and rolls around the stage accompanied by bare chested men stabilising it. She takes Khovansky’s coat and drapes it over herself… then, after performing her piece, sits there on the ball for about ten minutes in shadow watching Khovansky be assassinated in his bath and all the other Persian slaves walk past and spit on his corpse. The dance was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov by agreement with Mussorgsky and I would be lying if I said it is noticeable that it stands out compared to many of the other pieces instrumentally. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov have very distinctly difference composition styles needless to say.
The assassination is well done as there is a shower head on the bath and thus when his throat is slit the tap is turned on and a shower of red blood rains down upon him before it’s turned off by the last passing slave and a sheet is drawn over the bath tub until Andrey is made to confront his father’s corpse.
There is a backlit walkway with folds down from right stage when Dosifey and later Khovansky address their followers. It really helps to emphasise the status they are held in by their followers when they appear from stage right on it. Dosifey strides out and is in as much, if more, strength as he was at the start of the play. His determination and disposition have only grown with time. This is contrasted when Khovanshy initially seems to emulate this when the Strelsty call for him. However instead of the barrel chested, physically imposing, leader of earlier acts we see a frail old man hobble out and beg his followers to lay down their arms and prepare for the Czar’s judgement to be passed on them.
It can’t go without mention that you have quite archaic depictions of women. Marfa is lovesick for Andrey and every action she takes is to be reunited with him despite his rejection of her, Emma despite being named is only someone for Andrey to lust after with no further contribution after her first scene, the Persian Slave(s) are there to be Ivan’s playthings, Sofia is never seen on stage but is represented by Shaklovity… the only woman of any note is Susanna (one of the older members of the Old Believers) who ultimately only serves to shrewishly condemn Marfa for her love of the younger Khovansky instead of dedicating herself to the cause absolute.
Clumsy. I think that’s the word I would want to use regretfully, if not lazy for cetain aspects, regarding this production. It’s a revival of the 2007 production and it seems like they haven’t built on what they learned back then. ‘A decade has passed, no one will remember what we did last time. We hardly do ourselves!’
At the launch event it was joked they dusted off one of the older works and apparently that’s all they did thinking. The photo used for the promotional material, even at a glance, is clearly the old costumes as you see a man dressed in traditional black robes and not this productions choice to have the Old Believers wear white. This isn’t a revival by a retread with a new coat of paint sadly. In Hollywood films we see remakes of older films that don’t add anything to the original, don’t find a successful new interpretation nor make their own version but just seem to retread the exact same steps as their predecessor and often makes the same, if not more, mistakes. Apparently that can happen in opera too from what I saw here. If anything it’s gotten sloppy trying to experiment on some aspects that they didn’t fully consider.
The performers do their best, proving their status in the world of opera and I find little fault with them beyond some pronunciation which can be expected if they’re not often called on to perform in Russian often (let alone the suggestion of there being little time to prepare which was suggested at the season lauch event) but I think it was a lot of the staging and other choices which really took away from, rather than supported, the production.
The Persian dancer certainly was out of tone with the rest of the production. You have to ask if it was mandated by someone with influence making what is meant to be evidence that Khovansky has abandoned any noble ambition and given into decadent hedonism watching ballet instead was turned into a burlesque show for the audience. It takes you out of it completely it’s such a contrast to every thing else even compared to other productions of the opera by other companies. A brave choice but one that should have been reflected earlier with the actions of Ivan’s son Andrey towards Emma to show that despite all Khovansky’s noble words we see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the end.
It seems like I am nitpicking at artistic choices or minor points but it all accumulates. WNO always put a lot of effort into their set designs and staging. You would be hard pressed to say they do anything less than excel in it otherwise but for this production the choices just don’t work. There are some great ideas but the way they get implemented seems half hearted or misinformed at times. Khovanshchina is one of the rarer operas to be performed so they really had a chance to establish themselves further as one of the great opera companies but instead seem to have ‘given it a go’ with a mindset that failure is highly likely. This season they were also simultaneously doing Eugene Onegin and The House of the Dead alongside this piece and I am not sure how those will have come across as they are in many ways much safer options compared to Khovanshchina which perhaps asks a lot of an audience in comparison.
On the whole you might think three and a half hours would be dreadfully long but I found it moved along quite quickly. The only times I noticed the time were are the start, which seemed to take an eternity to establish events, and at the end where it just seemed like, after the pardoning of the Streltsy, everyone left remaining now needed to each perform a piece individually before the finale. People joke about the ending of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy taking forever but really this opera was not well served by reinstating the parts edited out previously.
It is often asked if you need to read up about an opera before seeing it and it’s up to you. WNO on their own webpage introducing people to opera even say this. You might get more enjoyment knowing the story before hand so you can enjoy the performance or you might enjoy seeing the twists in the narratives played out before you without warning. Khovanshchina is definitely one opera you must read up about before or else you will get lost. The colour coding is a good effort to counter this but you will still get lost if you don’t follow it carefully or have prior knowledge of the proceedings.
Khovanshchina: The operatic example of what ‘too many chefs spoils the broth’ looks like.
Originally an opera (subtitled a ‘national music drama’) in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky.
After Mussorgsky died leaving it unfinished Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882.
Because of his extensive cuts and “recomposition”, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.
Of course then each staging might choose to make alterations themselves. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev’s request. When Feodor Chaliapin refused to sing the part of Dosifei in any other orchestration than Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Diaghilev’s company employed a mixture of orchestrations which did not prove successful. The Stravinsky-Ravel orchestration was forgotten, except for Stravinsky’s finale, which is still sometimes used.
Even with only a passing knowledge of Russian classical music you can see that some of the biggest names of the twentieth century tackled the piece and with each alteration came tension on what was the best option. Rimsky-Korsakov streamlined the opera and made it accessible. Shostakovich, true to his own style, included the more experimental sections which perhaps to me make the piece feel excessive in length or, as can be expected of things added back in after a ‘finalised’ version has been created, the pacing is negatively affected so some parts move along at a pace and others seem to come to a screaming stop and drag. Rimsky-Korsakov, if you look up the alteration history, made a lot of shortened sections. It’s a topic far too long for a review as it deserves it’s own focused consideration.
I assume it’s the Shostakovich version performed as it’s not immediately obvious in the brochure which version they went with but no doubt made some adjustments to suit themselves.
It’s a good opera to go see once but I can’t say after this experience I will want to see it again and certainly having seen a few Welsh National Opera productions (Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, etc) this is by far one of, if not their, weakest productions by far. The staging which is one of the company’s strong points falls flat here and at a few points borders being comical or sensationalist for the sake of it.
This review is only about this one production and not the company as a whole. WNO are serious contenders in the world of opera but in this case they underserved Mussorgsky’s opera and, in hindsight, hid it between Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Leos Janacek’s From The House Of The Dead. They sold this seasons operas’ brochures all together in a single volume at the cost of £6 on the assumption if you are seeing one then you’ll obviously be seeing the others too all as part of the R17 event. I’m sure those are both far superior but sadly my experience with Khovanshchina has made me lose faith in them this season. For all I know it was one bad night but it just so happened to be the one bad night I went to see their production of the opera.
During the season Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin are performed in Russian but The House of the Dead, for timing, is performed in English. Part of me wishes they did Khovanshchina in English too if only to have a bit more control over some of the finer details. The opera has some good arias, the chorus work at every point is astounding but there are certainly some parts which I think will test even moderately patient audiences. It’s definitely not a piece to introduce someone to the world of opera with.
The brochure is nice though and very informative about the different operas so that at least is a nice note I can end on. Buy that as an introduction to the different operas, discussion of their background and have some high quality matt prints of Russian paintings.
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