Cherry Orchard, Conway Hall, London, 12th October 2015
“To thine own self be true” was the Shakespearean instruction, inscribed above the stage set for the Cherry Orchard at Conway Hall.
As the actors dragged the corpse of Chekov’s text to the bitter end, what I wondered, should you do if “thine own self” is an unprepared performer in an ill-conceived and incoherent production of one of the greatest plays of all time?
I don’t enjoy criticising anyone involved in theatre for the sake of it. No one wants or tries to put on a bad play, with one famous exception, but this was a paid performance (£20 for the record) at a well-known London venue.
I should have been alerted by the description of the evening. Not just a “re-imagining” of Chekov’s work, but one so “special” it would be performed only once.
I learned during Shakespeare challenge to be wary of companies who look at a classic text and decide they can do a better job by re-imagining it. I think of this as “Cecilia Gimenez syndrome”. She was the Spanish woman who wanted to restore and improve on the fresco of Christ in her local church, resulting in “Monkey Jesus”.
This re-imagining involved an unusual use of space. For the first part of the play, the audience sat exclusively on the balcony, with the stalls entirely empty (even of seats), leaving us struggling to hear as the actors addressed a sound-hungry vacuum.
We then walked out of the theatre, into the cold October night, into a small park. It’s hard to maintain the illusion of the theatre when focus is being pulled by council street cleaners emptying bins and picking up dog muck.
Back inside, we were invited not just to stand in front of the stage, but to join the actors in a circling Russian folk dance. Inevitably, the vast majority of people, already cold and bored, stood stony-faced against the walls, watching the lonely troupe dance a death jig with rictus grins.
I think we were back up in the balcony but by then I had lost all interest. All this was made worse by an inconsistent approach to accents; acting that ranged from manic to disinterested; and lines being trodden on or mangled, or both.
After three solid shows, the low point so far. 97 to go, and things can only get better.
4 down – 97 to go.
Thank you Conway Hall.