Monday, August 22, 2011

Chekhov and Ibsen at the National Theatre

I understand the need to find translations of Chekhov and Ibsen that don’t provide obstacle courses for contemporary actors; one of the reasons André Gregory was able to do the phenomenal work he did with the cast of Vanya on 42nd Street was that David Mamet made the language so limpid and close to the natural rhythms of American actors. But the rage for new versions of the plays, often mired in contemporary clichés, is infuriating. In Pam Gems’s rewrite of A Doll’s House, Krogstad warns Christine, “Goes around, comes around,” and I’ve heard a student actor perform a scene in Uncle Vanya in which Astrov uses the expletive “fucking.” That can’t be a reasonable solution. In Andrew Upton’s version of The Cherry Orchard performed by Britain’s National Theatre (and widely seen abroad in HD), Gaev (James Laurenson) calls Lopakhin (Conleth Hill) a “crap artist” and Lyubov Ranevskaya (Zoë Wanamaker), rather than just excoriating the eternal student Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) for having no mistress at his age, grabs at his crotch and wonders out loud if he’s got anything at all down there. But the real offense in Upton’s Cherry Orchard is his lengthy addenda, which seem to have two purposes  to overemphasize the political subtext (the second-act debate between Trofimov and Lopakhin is about one and a half times longer than the one Chekhov wrote) and to make sure the audience doesn’t miss the point. That must be why Yasha (Gerald Kyd), Lyubov's manservant, takes three times as many lines as Chekhov wrote for him to persuade her to take him along when she returns to Paris. (Yasha, born a peasant but determined to rise in the world, is more or less a comic variation on the self-educated valet Jean in Strindberg's Miss Julie.)  Does Upton really think he can improve on Chekhov?

Presumably this is The Cherry Orchard that the director, Howard Davies, wanted to mount at the National, perhaps because of the extended political chatter; Davies is a Marxist. But the production itself isn’t unfair to Chekhov’s play. Davies makes no attempt to undermine its sympathetic attitude toward the brother-and-sister aristocrats, Ranevskaya and Gaev, who through a combination of illusion and habit and a impracticality can’t prevent their family estate from being sold from under them. In only a couple of places you can see Davies doesn’t want to give in to the text. Chekhov lays the second act in the orchard, but though Bunny Christie has designed an impressive set, when the Ranevsky house cuts away to reveal the vegetation, all we get is thick, straw-like underbrush, and we have to conclude that Davies just doesn’t have it in him to show us the beauty of what the aristocrats are losing. Toward the end of the act, a homeless drunk begs some change from Lyubov’s adopted daughter Varya (Claudie Blakley), and though Lopakhin, the peasant-turned-landowner who ends up buying the cherry orchard, shoos the man away, Ranevskaya finds something in her purse for him. Chekhov is pointing up more than Lyubov’s spendthriftiness, which we’ve heard about since the first act: the contrast between her response to the beggar and Lopakhin’s reminds us that whatever criticisms we may make of the aristocrats, they were raised to feel a responsibility to be generous to the poor, and when their class dies away so does that attitude. Davies blurs that idea by having Wanamaker’s Ranevskaya thrust her coins in to the beggar’s hands to get rid of him because he’s frightening Varya.

Zoё Wanamaker (photo by Catherine Ashmore)
Christie’s set fills the immense Olivier Theatre, which isn’t the ideal space for this play; it would have been a cozier fit in the National’s middle-sized house, the Lyttleton. But the National clearly knew they’d likely have a hit with a distinguished actress in the role of Ranevskaya, and considering that The Cherry Orchard has been alternating with a nearly four-hour spectacle with a cast of fifty, Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean, which hasn’t a chance of making money, you can’t blame them for milking it. But there’s just one scene where the size of the stage enhances the production: at the end, when the Ranevskys stand for the last time in their darkened childhood house, now emptied of furniture, they’re dwarfed by it  symbolically by history marching past them.

Despite the silly excesses of Upton’s version of the script, this is a good production. It’s eloquently staged and beautifully lit (by Neil Austin), and almost the entire cast is splendid. The standouts are Wanamaker, Hill, Blakley, Bonnar and  the night I saw it  Craigie Els, stepping in for Tim McMullan in the role of the Ranevskys’ eccentric neighbor, Simyonov-Pishchik, another bankrupt aristocrat whose luck unexpectedly changes at the end of the play. Only a few performances are disappointing. As Lyubov’s daughter Anya, who is in love with Trofimov, Charity Wakefield tends to go for the same effects over and over again, and Gerald Kyd’s Yasha is overstated, though that may be partly the fault of Upton’s overwriting. As Firs, the aging servant who still longs for the days before the emancipation of the serfs, Kenneth Cranham comes across as too young (he and Gaev, whom Firs has been attending to since Gaev was a schoolboy, seem about the same age), and his final moments, when he finds he’s been forgotten in the house after the family has left and Lopakhin has locked it up, don’t have the power they should have. But they’re shortchanged by an odd staging choice on Davies’s part. In the text Firs finds he’s too weary to get up, and he passes gently away, just a shadow in the house that has always defined him. In this production he trips and falls and can’t rise again; his fate is a kind of pratfall, and so abrupt that it’s not clear exactly what happens to him.

Anton Chekhov
Wanamaker is at her best in the second act, when Lyubov monologues about her past  her disastrous marriage, the death by drowning of her little boy, the tempestuous affair with her lover in Paris, who is sick and poor and writes her every day to return to him. This actress, with her munchkin face and shining, eloquent eyes, has superb technique, though if there’s anyone on stage who’s likely to break your heart it’s Claudie Blakley as Varya, who’s in love with Lopakhin and whom everyone assumes he will marry but he never rises to the occasion. Blakley was Mabel Nesbitt in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, the poor girl married to a young aristocrat (James Wilby) who embarrasses him by showing up for a country weekend without her own maid. It’s hard to imagine a more touching Varya, especially in the final scene with Lopakhin, moments before she leaves to take up housekeeping for a family in another town. She waits for Lopakhin to mention marriage, but he never does, and eventually she realizes that it’s too late  that her fate as a spinster is sealed. Chekhov never spells out why Lopakhin doesn’t propose to Varya (he isn’t in love with anyone else), but I’ve always guessed that it had something to do with class: that, having pulled himself up by the bootstraps, a son of a serf who’s become a wealthy merchant, he feels he can do better than a low-born woman who, even though Ranevskaya has adopted her, is still essentially a domestic.

Lopakhin is one of the most complex and conflicted of Chekhov’s characters, and Davies doesn’t try to simplify him. He’s always adored Ranevskaya, who was kind to him when he was a little boy, and he really wants to save her and Gaev from themselves; an expert moneymaker, he whips up a scheme by which they can hold onto the estate by chopping down the cherry orchard and dividing the land into tourist rentals. But when he suggests it to them, as he does repeatedly in the course of the first two acts, they look at him as if he’d stepped off another planet. In their view his commercial impulses are crass, the thought of crowding their land with tourists appalls them, and the idea of chopping down the orchard, the heart of their childhood and the symbol to them of all that is beautiful, is horrifying. So Gaev pins their hopes, unreasonably, on an uncongenial aunt in another town who has never approved of Ranevskaya’s bohemian lifestyle, while Lyubov, who knows better than to expect much help from that quarter, moves from avoidance to anxiety to despair. She hosts a ball in act three, the night the estate goes up for auction, though she knows it’s a terrible idea; unlike Lopakhin, she’s always fully conscious of what she’s doing but can’t help herself. At the end of the act, Gaev and Lopakhin return from the auction and Lopakhin announces that he himself has bought the cherry orchard. In a dramatic outburst, he talks about leveling the land where his father and grandfather were serfs and though Chekhov has given us small hints that a strange mixture of pride and bitterness has been lurking under the surface of the character this is the first time we’ve ever confronted it directly. But then he rushes over to the weeping Lyubov and reminds her that he tried to warn her, tried to help her, and he confesses in an anguished tone that he wishes all of this were over. His behavior in the final act confirms it: he closes up the house and rushes off to Kharkov and, presumably, some new moneymaking scheme while the cherry trees fall to the woodcutter’s axe. Conleth Hill, a marvelous actor who contributed a memorable comic performance as one of the drunks in the Broadway production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, gives full weight to both of these sides of the tormented Lopakhin. In most productions The Cherry Orchard is Ranevskaya’s play, but good as Wanamaker is, at the National the show belongs to Hill’s Lopakhin.

Henrik Ibsen wrote Emperor and Galilean at the end of his epic poetic drama phrase, in 1873. Brand was written in 1866, Peer Gynt in 1867; he shifted into realist mode with Pillars of Society and then turned out A Doll’s House in 1879. But Emperor and Galilean wasn’t performed until 1896, and since Ibsen wrote it in two parts and ten acts, it’s amazing that it ever made it to the stage at all. It chronicles the life of the Roman Emperor Julian, raised a Christian in the early fourth century but a convert to paganism by the time he ascended the throne upon the death of his uncle, Constantinus, The National Theatre is offering it in a new version by Ben Power whittled down to four acts and a little over three and a half hours, directed by Jonathan Kent on a set by Paul Brown that makes wide use of the Olivier Theatre’s gargantuan drum revolve (which rises out of the stage floor to a towering height) as the action wanders from Constantinople to Athens, Ephesus, Gaul, Vienne, Antioch and Persia. The production is alternately fascinating and exhausting; I don’t think anyone else is going to attempt to stage the play again for a long time.

Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean (photo by Catherine Ashmore)
Kent has a considerable reputation among contemporary British directors, and since this is only the second show of his I’ve seen I don’t wish to generalize. But as in his production of Medea starring Diana Rigg, which transferred from the West End to Broadway, the set seems to carry most of the burden of his staging. His compositions tend to be static – a procession carrying aloft Constantinus (Nabil Shaban) makes an eye-catching appearance out of a befogged palace interior (lit by Mark Henderson, the National’s resident genius) but then it stops dead for the next several minutes for a long exchange between the emperor and his nephew . And he can’t make a mob scene feel authentic or find ways to suggest the difference in atmosphere as the production lugs from one exotic locale to another. The acting has technical proficiency that amounts to polished mediocrity, though you have to give Andrew Scott, who plays Julian, credit for sustained energy, considering the hugeness of his role. The problem is that no matter how many phases the character goes through as he moves from devout Christian to pagan tyrant, Scott plays all his big explosion scenes like a pouting teenage boy. The single embarrassing display of acting is by Genevieve O’Reilly as Helena, Constantinus’s sister and then Julian’s bride, who is poisoned after biting into a peach that Constantinus intended for Julian: driven mad, she writhes across the stage under the delusion that she’s having sex with Jesus before expiring in the wings.

Henrik Ibsen
The long (nearly two-hour) and lumbering first half relies way too much on reports of dynamic, life-altering action that occurs offstage, usually in other countries. At one point, Julian’s childhood friend Agathon (James McArdle) receives a letter from his mother relating the details of Julian’s brother Gallus’s ruthless military exploits after Constantinus has made him his heir and then appointed him general of his army. (Julian succeeds him as first in line to the throne when Gallus is killed by his own rebelling officers, at Constantinus’s inciting.) Based on the Gallus we meet in the first act (played by Laurence Spellman), the one in Agathon’s mother’s letter sounds completely unfamiliar  but then, Julian’s transformation from a youthful intellectual to a world conqueror when his uncle makes him head of the military is also a head-scratcher. Ibsen may be to blame for these lurching transformations but of course we can only guess what he actually wrote. (I didn’t feel the urge to dig up a translation of the original.) The dialogue sounds ridiculously modern in spots. When one of the young Christians who are Julian’s closest companions in the early scenes (Jamie Ballard and John Heffernan play the others, Gregory and Peter) says that Julian is “the talk of the empire,” you may think of those fatuous Hollywood biographies from the thirties and forties where the characters, played by undisguisable stars in period costumes, chatter about Schumann’s latest sonata or the ground-breaking new discovery by Marie Curie. The dopiest scenes involve crowds of young people protesting Constantinus’s lies or whirling about in Dionysian ecstasies or, under Julian’s imperial command, yelling the name of their god, Helios, like cheerleaders before a football game. There doesn’t seem to be much point in reviving an epic poetic drama if you leave out the poetry.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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