Simon Stone speaks with actors Katherine Tonkin and David Paterson during rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard.

Adapting a classic

In the lead-up to making his MTC directorial debut with The Cherry Orchard, Simon Stone answered a few questions from Paul Galloway about his adaptation of Chekhov’s classic play.

What attracted you to adapt and direct The Cherry Orchard?

I think Chekhov might be my favourite writer, and of all his plays, alongside Uncle Vanya, which contains a familiar environmental concern in the speeches of Astrov, The Cherry Orchard seems to me timely for Australia at this particular moment. I sense in us a feeling of living on the edge of a precipice, that didn’t seem true, say, fifteen years ago. People are worried about the future, unsure of what is going to happen. What is next for the world? Is a catastrophe about to happen? What can we do? This is also an undercurrent of The Cherry Orchard. And for us who live now, with the knowledge of the Soviet Revolution, the play is viewed from an ironic position. It’s a play about the fear of a catastrophe around the corner; the hope that everything will stay the same. Well, we know that the apocalypse did come for that class of people in Russia. I like that irony. And also the irony of putting the show on at a time, when we too are wondering whether our way of life is going to change dramatically. So the play seems to me this perfect prism through which we can view our current insecurities and anxieties, joys and hopes, for the world we’re living in.

The Cherry Orchard might also be seen to be about people facing momentous events who fail to act. Is that us, too?

To me, Chekhov is always about human resilience. People don’t generally die in Chekhov – there are noticeable exceptions to that of course: Tuzenbach (Three Sisters) and Kostya (The Seagull) – but more typical are those who find a way to push on, even if they have to delude themselves to do it. Though, if you take a character like Ranevskaya [in The Cherry Orchard], who has lost her son, the love of her life, her fortune and her childhood home, all one after the other, then I suppose a certain amount of self-delusion is understandable, or even necessary. Her resilience is remarkable, but also kind of mad. What I love about Chekhov’s plays is that his characters often have completely irrational responses that are rationally understandable – when seen in the right context.

Now the adaptation is written, how Chekhovian is it?

I wanted to follow Chekhov as closely as possible. I diverged from the original here and there in terms of plot, but we’re finding in rehearsal that most of those divergent moments don’t work, so we’ve cut them. What my adaptation has tried to do, though, is find a more direct path into the imagination of the audience, getting rid of any unnecessary period specificity or floweriness, that might get in the way. I’m looking always for the true statement that will strike straight to the core of the audience.

I’ve heard your production has an aesthetic reminiscent of the seventies. Is that when it’s set?

Actually, I want to deflect any specific location or period from the piece – I don’t want to say seventies Australia is just like 1904 Russia, and try for some facile relevance or correspondence. Instead, the seventies feel is a prism or a filter that the designers and I are using as a way to highlight certain notions of class. I don’t want the audience to necessarily feel that they are watching a play set in the seventies; rather give the audience an intangible association of the seventies, a sense of the fall of old money and the rise of an entrepreneurial era and also a radical era of protest, which are elements also in the original. But the production should resonate just as much with our own era and the original period too. The way I approach adaptations is to treat these early modernist works as if they were already myths, which, like other pieces of mythology, exist outside time or place.

What do you want the audience to take from this production?

The really important thing is that the experience of watching the play should be approached in a similar way to watching a piece of reality TV. This is something Chekhov was trying to write: ordinary life, things randomly happening in this room and that room, and lives being changed with the passage of time. Like those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where the rhythm of life forms the structure of the story, where small revelations have a big impact. When the actors find that beauty in the everyday, allowing the ridiculous moments or the heartbreaking moments to burst out of this flow of mundanity, that’s when play sings.

You can hear Simon talk more about the Art of Adaptation in our audio recording from the Neon Conversation of the same name. Head to the Watch and Listen section to hear this and other audio from this year’s NEON Festival of Independent Theatre.

Published on 5 August 2013