Say “Cechovian” and everyone will immediately picture some bored and fallen aristocrats, languidly spending their summer days in interminable discussions about life while the world around them collapses. They lie on chaises longue, into soliloquies in which they recollect the past. From time to time one of them kills himself. “Cechovian” is used not only in reference to Cechov’s work but every time we come across a play or film where conversations are more important than actions and the rhythm is slow and decadent.
Pity that, if you truly read Cechov – not only his plays but his letters and stories – you’ll discover he never meant his characters to be just bored and languid. Cechov’s stage directions are full of “on the verge of tears”, “shouting”, “laughing”, indicating a very intense temperament typical of people who have a lot going on inside them apart from boredom. Comedy in Cechov is crucial. “Cherry Orchard” is described by his author as a “farce”. He wants to show how inane some people are, how ridiculous our lives can be, and tragically so. His characters don’t just “languidly converse”, they fight, they suffer, they have fun… What we consider “Cechovian” comes from a prejudice. Especially in Britain, people think that Cechovian characters are like the British middle-upper class. But watch Cechov performed by a Russian company, and you’ll see how the Russian temperament has nothing to do with the British. The Russians are loud, emotional and melodramatic. Melodrama was so typical on the Russian stages that Stanislavsky, when first directing Cechov, decided to restrain all that “overacting” and go for a more naturalistic, contained style. This was then copied abroad, and especially in Britain, producing the “Cechovian” we talk about. But Cechov never meant to be Cechovian. Just real.
All this to say, from a director like Sam Mendes, whose theatre and film credits place him in a very high league, I expected so much more. His “Cherry Orchard”, despite the stellar cast – Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawk to mention the biggest names – is so predictable, it could have been staged by any middle scale rep theatre. It’s all you can expect. The bored characters, the soliloquies that seem to spring out of nowhere, the languid longing for a lost past… It’s boring. And if there’s one thing that makes me furious is to see a boring Cechov, as Cechov for is one of the greatest playwrights of all time. He’s a genius. So why can’t directors give him more credit and listen to what he wrote, really READING his texts??
The first act of Mendes production is particularly bad. It shows a total lack of understanding of the script. Mendes doesn’t seem to have asked himself questions about characters’ motivations, he just took for granted Cechov has to be languid, lyrical and slow. For instance, when Lubov returns home after only 5 years (not 50 years, five), and her daughter Anya happily asks “mother, do you remember which room is this,” Lubov replies “the nursery!”. It’s totally unclear from the set design (an open space covered in rugs and few items of furniture) whether the nursery is still looking like a nursery or not. Obviously Mendes didn’t ask himself that question. Lubov recognizes it immediately – as it’s only normal – and seems suddenly happy to be back in the old room. Now, we learn later that Lubov left Russia because her child drowned. Certainly returning to the nursery must be a very disturbing moment. But in this version neither Anya nor Lubov seem to aknowledge that. They’re just happy. This is just an example. There are dozens in the first act. People burst into soliloquy without any reason. Without a clear impulse. They address their monolgues to audience, which make them so fake. Why is somebody recollecting a past event everybody else knows about, unless they have a PROFOUND reason to do so?
Basically, what’s totally lacking in this production is work on the relationship between characters and their deep motivations. Actors say lines, they don’t talk to each other. They say lines in “Cechovian” style, languid, lyrical, unnatural, theatrical, and, yes, boring. Boring because it’s just talk. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. It’s acting.
As the cast is of very high level, I don’t think it’s just the actors’ fault. My feeling is that there’s no big concept behind this production. No real work on characters. What is it that Mendes is trying to say? What’s the point of choosing this play if he then presents it in the most conventional and stereotyped way? There are moments where some ideas seem to come to surface, but they’re just sketched. The threat coming from the serving class, whose shadows appear in the horizon, ready for revolution. The surreal, devilish dance at the beginning of act two. But they’re just moments.
In the second part the acting generally improved – there are more events to react to and less speeches, so it easier for actors to find motivations for their words – and Rebecca Hall and Simon Russell Beale are incredibly good in the final scenes. But unfortunately even their great talent isn’t enough to save a mediocre show.