There should be no such thing as the definitive production of a play. Particularly not one by Shakespeare. Or by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Or by Chekhov. And yet, a few days before I went to see The Bridge Project’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I watched the 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company version of the play that was recorded for the BBC. It starred Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Ian Holm and Judi Dench. And although a recorded version of a play almost always suffers in comparison to a live one, watching that nearly 50-year old interpretation of the final play Chekhov wrote before his premature death at 44 may have ruined me for any other.
That’s certainly how I felt as I sat at BAM’s Harvey Theater watching the recently opened production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Sam Mendes, with a new translation by Tom Stoppard and a cast lead by Sinéad Cusack, Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke. The Bridge Project is a collaboration between artists on both sides of the Atlantic and the same production will be presented over the next six months at The Old Vic in London, as well as in Singapore, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and Greece. It’s a noble idea. The people involved are first rate. Most of the critics have raved. And yet, I was unmoved.
I confess I’ve always had a harder time with Chekhov than with Shakespeare or even the Greeks. But I loved the limited-run production of The Seagull that opened on Broadway last fall. The Cherry Orchard's story about people living above their means and poised on the brink of great societal change seemed even more timely. And the talented folks involved in the production made it all the more appealing. The minute I first read about the show, I emailed my pal Bill to see if he were interested and then ordered tickets for us to see it.
We met at the theater in downtown Brooklyn an hour before the 7:30 curtain. Zagat lists some nearby restaurants but all I ever see are fast food joints when I’m walking from the subway to the theater. So Bill and I decided to grab a bite at the lobby bar in the Harvey. According to a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian, eating at theater bars has become increasingly popular in London (click here to read an evaluation of some of them).
I wish the practice would catch on here since a bar meal tends to be cheaper than one at a restaurant, not an inconsiderable benefit in these pinched-purse times. The Harvey bar’s menu is mainly sandwiches but my pulled pork was tasty and Bill seemed to enjoy his roast beef. There was Junior’s cheesecake for dessert and you can’t beat that. The small plastic cups of wine—though overpriced—didn’t hurt either.
If only the show had been as satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, there were good things about it. Cusack was touching as Madame Ranevskaya, the middle-aged aristocrat who is so unable to adjust to the changing times and her declining fortunes that she plans a party instead of tending to the threatened auction of her estate. Cusack was so poignant that Bill wondered at intermission why she isn’t better known in this country like her equally talented contemporary Helen Mirren.
The always formidable Beale captured the ambivalent mix of reverence and resentment in Lopakhin, a former peasant on the family estate who has become the wealthiest man in the area. But Morven Christie failed to convey the endearing distractedness that the young Judi Dench brought to the role of Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter, and she didn't replace it with any other distinctive quality. Similarly, while Paul Jesson was fine as Ranevskaya’s prissy brother, no one does prissy like Gielgud.
I know. It’s silly to compare. And maybe the current cast members will grow into their roles and make them their own as they explore their characters over the weeks and months to come. But there are other things that are totally fair game to criticize. Mark Bennett’s incidental music called far too much attention to itself. Mendes’ visual imagery paid far too much homage to The Coast of Utopia. The entire production seemed much like the magic tricks the family governess performs in the show: well executed and yet failing to amaze.
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