In the boardroom at Auckland Theatre Company's Balmoral headquarters, three things hang on one wall: a modestly-sized tapa cloth and two A3 sheets of paper covered with jottings about shifting one of the most famous plays from Russia to New Zealand.

It's an apt visual metaphor for a theatrical move that sees Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard relocated from the Russian countryside, two decades before the revolution, to Hawke's Bay in 1976 just as New Zealand was starting an altogether quieter revolution of its own.

ATC's artistic director Colin McColl has directed the play twice and stayed in turn-of-the-century Russia; this time, he wanted to do something different and figured, why not relocate the story and the characters?

After all, he says The Cherry Orchard is a play about change where not a lot happens — except that the audience gets a ringside seat to observe how one family, and their friends and acquaintances, deal with social upheaval. In mid-1970s New Zealand, a Maori renaissance was under way; new questions were being asked, louder than before, about land ownership.


McColl worked alongside playwright Albert Belz, theatre-maker Tainui Tukiwaho and ATC's literary manager Philippa Campbell to adapt the play. He says it was surprisingly easy, possibly because the way land was taken, settled and ownership decided in New Zealand adds an extra but relevant layer.

Rawiri Paratene, one of the show's many big-name stars, says a Chekhov fan isn't going to look at this Aotearoa version and see anything that might be classed as a "foreign object".

The issue comes, he says, with attaching the word "classic" to a play; it brings a certain expectation about how things should be done.

McColl has no time for those niceties.

"I am a great believer that classic plays shouldn't be museum pieces; that they have to be able to speak to us about our lives today," he says. "The plays are robust enough that they can take a bit of shaking around without losing the inherent truths that are there. That's why they are classics; because people have thrown them around in all different ways and they survive."

It's still centred on a sociable, intelligent and caring farming family, hopelessly in debt and facing the forced sale of their huge estate, including a much-loved cherry orchard. When the entrepreneurial son (Te Kohe Tuhaka) makes them an offer which could provide the solution to their financial strife, they're racked by indecision and decide to spend one last summer on their property.

"It's like a thousand glimpses into the life of this extended family," says McColl. "Chekhov was a doctor in his 'real life' so, I suppose, he was used to looking at humanity, warts and all, and not really judging anyone, so he doesn't really ever judge any one of his characters. He just presents them and they are lovely, poetic souls with, at the same time, their ridiculousness but he makes no judgment about them. He was such an observer of life with a comedic edge."

Because, says McColl, contrary to what we may have been told and shown of Chekhov — "a television or a film version many years ago with Sir John Gielgud emoting away" — there is a lighter side to the play. Chekhov himself blanched when he saw the first production, at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, declaring that the director, Konstantin Stanislavski, had made a tragedy out of a play intended to be funny.


"It's a particular kind of comedy; it's a quirky, individual comedy and it's superbly written," McColl says.

Along with Paratene and Tuhaka, the cast includes Alison Bruce, Ian Mune, Andrew Grainger, Eli Kent and Hera Dunleavy.

What: The Cherry Orchard
Where and when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, June 12-26