ATC's lavish production of The Cherry Orchard draws parallels between the tumultuous changes that rocked the foundations of Russian society at the start of the 20th century and New Zealand's ongoing struggle to face up to the legacy of colonialism.
Whether this comparison supplies a good reason for rewriting a masterpiece by one of the world's finest dramatist is a question that will leave audiences divided - but for me more is lost than is gained by the exercise. On the positive side there is an amusing surrealistic jolt in seeing Chekhov's wildly eccentric characters gliding through the back-blocks of rural New Zealand and the play's penetrating psychological insights provide meaty fodder for a stellar cast.
What is missing is Chekhov's scintillating clash of ideas as an urgent desire for revolutionary change collides with an equally heartfelt yearning for traditional values. More significantly, the contemporary resonances which might have triggered a process of self-reflection in the minds of audience become somewhat labored when all the work is done for us.
The production credits a quartet of 'adaptors' who have effectively created a new play that follows the contours of Chekhov's story. The process calls to mind the paradox of Theseus' Ship which questions whether a ship is still the same ship once all its timber has been replaced?
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But ATC's trademark commitment to production values sets aside reservations and as entertainment the show delivers handsomely. Director Colin McColl's deploys finely choreographed slapstick lingers on the awkward vacillations of the chronically indecisive characters. Tony Rabbit's design establishes a grand and grungy arena for the fractured action while John Gibson's understated music delicately enhances the rhythm of the drama.
The 14-member cast present an impressive display of Kiwi talent: Te Kohe Tuhaka's confident display of entrepreneurial energy creates a highly sympathetic character while Andrew Grainger brings an endearing touch of self-awareness to his flights of grandiloquence. Alison Bruce highlights the neurosis behind the old-world charm of the play's matriarch and Eli Kent captures the wooly idealism of an eternal student. Rawiri Paratene is engagingly optimistic as a financially embarrassed farmer and Joe Dekkers-Reihana plays the suave bad-boy to Krystal-Lee Brown's warmly flirtatious home-girl. Ian Mune is wonderfully befuddled as a crochety old-bugger, Hera Dunleavy creates a fantastically bizarre Russian governess and Pipi the Jack Russell delivers a master-class in method acting.
What: The Cherry Orchard
Where & When: ASB Waterfront Theatre, to June 26
Reviewer: Paul Simei-Barton