The Cherry Orchard at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam review *****

The Cherry Orchard (De Kersentuin)

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, Staddschouwburg Rabozaal, 20th June 2019

One of the world’s greatest theatre makers in Simon McBurney directing. Actors from probably the world’s greatest theatre company in the form of the ITA (previously Toneelgroep). An adaptation from Robert Icke no less with his Dutch equivalent Peter van Kraaij as dramaturg. Luminaries such as Miriam Buether as designer, Paula Constable on lighting, Pete Malkin on sound and video from Will Duke. All working on, what for me, is actually Chekhov’s best, and final, play The Cherry Orchard. I wasn’t going to miss this. And nor should you either in Amsterdam or in London as I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this pops up at the Barbican next year.

Brace yourself mind. Mr McBurney was never going to offer us samovars and birch trees. Nor just a bitter-sweet, tragi-comedy focussed on text and character. He treats Chekhov in the same way as he has treated Brecht or opera. Whilst this may be his debut with the ITA he has illustrious past form at the Holland Festival, of which this production is a part, with productions of Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress and the joint Dutch National Opera/ENO Magic Flute, as well as Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.

The Cherry Orchard offers a portrait of an impoverished landowning family and their retinue, forced to sell their beloved cherry orchard to pay their debts. Their world is changing. Serfdom, following the 1861 emancipation reform, has disappeared. The proletariat is set to overturn their masters who have failed to modernise economy and society. A new, moneyed middle class bourgeoise has emerged. The context should provide an atmosphere of impending doom and a kind of warped nostalgia against which the individual relationships between the characters can be explored. Mr McB’s modern-dress, kinetic interpretation, (we are in 1970’s Holland as the optimism of the 1960’s have given way to economic crisis and political unrest I assume), maybe plays this down a little but the insight this affords into the individual psyches of the characters, the futility of their existence, and the subversions of their class, more than compensates. This is a long way from naturalistic, and I suspect may not have been everyone’s glass of genever; indeed I overheard one very irate middle-aged British couple bailing out at the interval.

Chekhov productions, and especially The Cherry Orchard with its twelve main parts, all of which have plenty to say, can take a little while to gain momentum. Not here. Mind you, that in part reflects the power of this company which, emotionally and physically, never holds back. Bouts of intense activity are followed by periods of listlessness and ennui, reflecting the gap between the lofty intentions of these people and their lived indifference. Most of the action is focussed on a relatively constrained, dramatically lit plinth in the front centre of the wide Rabozaal stage upstairs in the Staadschouwburg. This functions as nursery in Acts I and IV, (there is a little doll’s house to make the point), but with no walls or doors, though a bold sound design simulated the slamming of doors and heavy footsteps, and as the garden in Act II. For the Act III party, here a pretty racy affair, with Hendrix and the Velvet Underground as soundtrack, the rest of the stage was utilised. The beloved orchard appeared only in video projection, alongside the Paris that the family has left and, to highlight the theme of ecological catastrophe that the perpetual student and would be revolutionary Trofimov (Majd Mardo) declaims, a nuclear power station.

Chris Nietveld’s world weary Madame Ranevskaya, here just Amanda, seeks attention but it is, deliberately, Gijs Scholten van Aschat’s Lopakhin, here Steve, who is the focus of attention. He takes no pleasure in buying the estate from the family, in fact their inability to grasp their fates just makes him miserable. These two, as I know from previous ITA productions, simply cannot help but draw the eye, but I was also taken with Eva Heijnen’s feisty Anya, Janni Goslinga’s doleful Clara, Steven van Watermeulen’s wheedling Boris and Bart Seegers’ doltish Leopold.

Maybe all this sharpened imagery and performance takes away from the sense of a past in snapshot that other productions have described. And some scenes teeter towards farce though to be far this only reflects AC’s voiced intention. Mind you he said that in response to the super gloomy opening night in 1904. There is an improvisatory quality to proceedings to set alongside the technical barrage which I can see would wind a lot of punters up. And it got a bit of a pasting from the Dutch press.

Me though, I loved it.

After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***

after-the-rehearsal-barbican-232

After the Rehearsal

Barbican Theatre, 28th September 2017

So what was this going to be? Another flawed, portentous (pretentious?), langourous stroll through a story which might better have been left in its original format, like Obsession here at the Barbican earlier this year in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam Residency? Or a searing, metaphysical psychodrama in the manner of A View from the Bridge? You never quite know what you are going to get from wunderkind director Ivo van Hove although in this case, given the production of After the Rehearsal and its sister play Persona, are already staples of TA’s performance repertoire, it was possible to get a pretty good idea in advance.

Now I have to confess I was not at my best on the night of this performance and probably should have stayed tucked up in bed with my fading man-flu. The draw of the theatre once again proved too strong (the addict always craves stuff like this – the theatrical equivalent of absinthe) so I made a deal with myself: watch After the Rehearsal and then duck out unless you are absolutely riveted. Well I fear I was insufficiently riveted. On the other hand there was more than enough to chew on in After the Rehearsal and, as I have come to expect from TA’s finest, the performances were marvellous.

After the Rehearsal and Persona are based on Ingmar Bergman films, the former made for TB in 1984 and the latter for the cinema in 1966 (when he had refined his technique to the bare minimum). Unsurprisingly, Bergman is one of Ivo van Hove favourite artists. A version of Scenes From A Marriage has been in the TA repertoire since 2004, Cries and Whispers since 2008 and this double bill since 2012. Mind you Bergman’s influence on European theatre (I mean them not us) has been pretty profound. His own productions were apparently as famous for how they looked as the stories they told. Bergman himself worshipped August Strindberg. Both reach deep into Swedish identity. 

In After the Rehearsal, director Hendrick Vogler (I assume Bergman himself) and young actress Anna are discussing their production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play where Anna is playing the godly Agnes. The conversation expands beyond the play taking in their views on life and the lies they tell. Vogler tries to manipulate Anna. She responds. It turns out Vogler had an affair with Anna’s mother Rachel, also an actress, and she appears in on stage (though in his mind). She is broken by drink and depression but still pulls him to pieces. When she leaves Vogler and Anna imagine a future together: is this real or constructed1?

Now as ever with Bergman there are times when you feel like it would have been a good idea for someone to put their arm around him and tell him not to worry, it might never happen. But “it” does  happen and his exploration of what goes on in our heads and how this sets the narratives we create for ourselves and how the passage of time affects our identities is as penetrating as it gets. This in turns links back to the nature of theatre. Are we always acting? What are our real selves? Who are we trying to impress? Why do we lie to ourselves and others?

The Dutch text is taut and, as in other TA productions, the act of having to read the sur-titles means the words seem to penetrate deeper. Given the fact that not much actually happens (that isn’t the point) there is an awful lot of movement on the stage and lighting, props, music and sound all inject life into the “action”. Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Vogler, (who was a brilliant Coriolanus in Roman Tragedies though looked a bit lost as Joseph in Obsession), is again a colossal, brooding presence on stage. Gaite Jansen, who is a relative newcomer to TA, presents a calculating Anna. Best of all though was Marieke Heebink as Rachel whose desperation convulsed through her entire body. I still remember her fearsomely sexual Charmian alongside Chris Nietvelt’s haughtily needy Cleopatra in Roman Tragedies.

So why wasn’t I more taken with this play. I think, once again as with Obsession (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***), that the obstacle that I can’t quite get over lies in the transfer of film to stage. Bergman is full of close-ups. The Barbican stage is not. As Vogler says in this play ultimately theatre is text, actors and audience. If plot takes a back seat then character needs to come to the fore, and in a text like this I need to see right inside their heads. And I couldn’t.

Still Mr van Hove’s productions can never be ignored. Next up Network at the NT.