Monday, January 26, 2009

BAM: The Cherry Orchard

Some years ago Miss P & I finally got round to admitting how much we preferred to musicals to straight plays. Growing up, I went to the theatre a lot: my school was only an hour from London so there were frequent trips on offer, & I went on most. It never occurred to me to question whether I was actually enjoying the plays I saw: I just saw playgoing as an essential part of being cultured and engaged with the arts.

Now that I am older, I realise that what I really want is to be amused and entertained, taken out of my life, rather than having a mirror held up to my inner fears as the best play writing does. Of course I can appreciate the message behind Journey’s End (& cry my eyes out watching it), or thrill to the rhetoric in Julius Caeser but, frankly, I prefer to read serious, thoughtful plays than see them on stage. That’s not to say I want to watch bedroom farces, (which I loathe), but I just that I prefer some spectacle on stage which isn’t connected, for example, to eyes being put out (King Lear), or Romans killing each other (Coriolanus)

Friday night, against my better judgment, we headed to BAM in Brooklyn to see the first production from The Bridge Project, Sam Mendes' plan to bring together English & American actors in one company, that would play on both sides of the Atlantic. (At the Old Vic in London.)

Amongst others, The Cherry Orchard stars Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke and Rebecca Hall. Refreshingly Mendes has resisted the temptation to transfer the mise en scene to the Deep South of the 30s or Nazi Germany, leaving every angle of the production from costume to set firmly in late 19th century Russia, as Chekhov intended.

The acting is superlative, reined in, and the more effective for it. Rebecca Hall’s stage presence as Varya is extraordinary, even when she is still, observing, and her acting effortless, matched only by the tour de force that is Russell Beale’s wholly sympathetic Lopakhin. Ethan Hawke was a surprise: he is very good, holding his own against some of England's most experienced actors.

And, most of all, the modern rhythm and vernacular of Tom Stoppard’s new translation keeps the action moving, avoids longueurs, and wholly engages the audience. The play is relevant, interesting and full of a sad humour. And I'm glad I was persuaded to attend.