La Cérisaie (The Cherry Tree/The Cherry Orchard) presented by the Belgian company TG STAN (i.e. Stop Thinking About Names).
The Flemish TG Stan collective from Antwerp chose to perform their version of Chekhov’s last play (1903-04), as a comedy where the tragedy was reduced to moments of pure pathos as the actors free themselves from the constraints of Chekhov’s theatrical conventions. The enclosed space of a dying society has flung open the windows and let fresh air flood into the theatre to produce a counter-discourse that brought this performance beyond past readings of the play. This reading was at time intriguing but at times disturbing because we seemed to lose something.
The TG Stan is a collective of actors whose aim is to refresh the classics, by obtaining from each actor a profoundly personal interpretation of the speaking subject and in this sense, they reached their mark. The group has no artistic director, there is no authoritarian stage presence to orient the cast towards a specific esthetic which means that each actor makes his or her own choices. Even where accents are concerned we often hear guttural Flemish sounds gargle through the French or even the odd German word uncovering a sense of familiarity between these artists and ourselves.
One has the impression that the actors are almost improvising, using speech rhythms that have nothing to do with the need to project their voices into the audience. And yet, we hear them all clearly. And one immediately has the sense that these are excellent actors who articulate beautifully, have much stage experience but are trying to deconstruct the work, reduce the discretely stagey style of “normal” Chekhovian performances to capture the effect of a conversation accidentally overheard in the garden next door. A situation that is recognizable, familiar but not too intimate or embarrassing. The actors all have individual functions within the collectivity bursting open the acting space where the whole stage enters into the performance: the wings, all the backstage area, piles of props in one corner waiting to be used and all the technical equipment, the lighting and so forth.
We understand how this group of close collaborators has learned to second guess their colleagues’ reactions and understand exactly how they react in performance situations. But just exactly what is this performance situation?
We are not in a neo-realistic third wall situation where the audience is full of indiscrete voyeurs watching what it is not supposed to see; we are not in a Brechtian space where foregrounding the technical aspects of the play, costume changes, set modifications, lighting changes and so forth, destroy the illusion of reality; we are not in a symbolic space of images that denaturalize the actors nor are we in an expressionist space that foregrounds the mental disturbance of the characters as it stretches and twists the visual components to capture the inner trauma of their mindset. Not at all.
We are in a space of characters/actors who are pure products of their own theatre and who have become exactly whom they chose to be within the limits of the narrative, disregarding the rules of staging or the gloomy side of what was always considered the angst that possessed Chekhov.
The actors change the authors’ didascalies, impose their own choices and thus rewrite the play in one sense according to their own contemporary sensibilities without betraying the essence of the situation. And no one else has interfered in their decisions. This is the newness of this experiment. The lack of director has freed the actors/characters totally, given them a freshness that we have never seen, and off they go but, on the other hand, all trace of real tragedy has disappeared, replaced by bursts of a spontaneous passion of all sorts.
Our gaze is constantly drawn all around the acting space at one time as if we were entering a crowded room for the first time! And no special space seems to dominate the conversation. As certain individuals speak, others are working, to the point where we barely realize that a performance is actually in progress. The characters all flutter strangely until there is a shriek from the audience and the rest of the cast comes rushing in after a five-year absence. “Will she still remember who I am?” Asks Lopakhin a landowner, about Lyubov, the present owner of the domain. Then they all enter from the audience, chatting excitedly, happy to be back in Russia after this five year holiday, talking about their Parisian adventures, hugging and kissing each other. They are at last home. Lyubov is nearly hysterical with joy. One daughter pulls out a wiggling herring as a gift. Such surprising details are common.
The results are at times a bit disconcerting given the precarious future of the family. First, the 80 year old servant in the play becomes a handsome young smiling fellow on stage who is rather pleasing and whose age changes the stage energy because even though he is a young man, his replies still shows he is hard of hearing and the incongruous reactions of a younger man saying he is nearly deaf becomes a joke while Lyubov the owner of the domain comes sweeping into the room in near hysterics, crying and greeting all with great whoops of joy without appearing to worry about her future.
The atmosphere is relaxed in spite of the news that they have to sell the domain to pay for their debts because the prerevolutionary society is dying, money is losing its value, all the landowners are losing their land and the old aristocratic society is falling apart.
Mother Lyubov screams that she could not stand to lose her beautiful domain but her tone shifts rapidly and soon her yearning for the past is transformed into laughing and playfulness while the conversation returns again and again to the question of the land as soon as it becomes clear that the sadness is compounded when they realize that the rich merchant Lopakhin has bought the Cherry orchard, and they all try to understand what this will mean to each of them. He has made a good offer on the property and they must begin to prepare their exit.
The chattering and movement grow immensely, life must continue as coffee is served in dainty cups whereas one of the daughters Varya, described by Chekhov as a nun, bears no resemblance to such a character. Trofimov the eternal student and intellectual who speaks in the most serious terms about the future of Russian society and the intelligentsia is mocked by the others even as he makes it known that he would like to marry the beautiful Anya.
At that moment even the set seems to be crumbling away, the sign of an aging world that will soon disappear. We see that from the neglect, the huge empty space, the slightly off-white old blinds suggest warn out colors or a surface that has not been washed for a very long time. The daughters seek refuge in their own partners. Varya in love with the new landowner Lopakhin and hopes he will say something but there is only silence, even when the family is about to leave for Moscow. Lopakhin says nothing to her and so his reasons for his restraint remain obscure even though he has confessed that he is interested in her. The play does not delve into such questions. All is left open but the disappointment is strongly suggested by the silence that follows Lyubov’s asking Varya: “Well?” dying to find out about a marriage proposal that has never happened. However, nothing was said and by slightly bending her head, Varya shows us she has missed her last chance to get married and is condemned to a life of solitude whereas Lopakhin’s motives are almost of no importance. Such is life.
Such silences criss-cross with counter moments of loud hysterics during the good-bye party in the house. There is a wild tribal ritual of thumping feet and symmetrically rocking bodies under the glow of soft orange lights in the back room of the house. Much emotional energy is spent and then they are gone and what remains is a great void.
A strange stage experiment which left the spectators chattering among themselves as they left the theatre, trying to uncover the meaning of this new work presented in a form that clarifies nothing but that adds new unknowns and new secrets to Chekhov’s work. Audiences will be discussing this play for a long time to come. I guarantee it!
This article originally appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on April 16, 2018, and has been republished with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.