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.

Medea at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Medea

International Theatre Amsterdam, Barbican Theatre, 6th March 2019

Now you can’t always be sure that wunderkind director Ivo van Hove delivers the goods when he comes to the UK, which is now surprisingly often with All About Eve his latest offering. When it comes to the company where he is AD, alongside design partner Jan Versweyveld, International Theatre Amsterdam, (previously Toneelgroep Amsterdam), you can pretty much guarantee theatre of the very best quality.

Especially when the story is Medea, Euripides’s most performed play, and still a rich source of inspiration some 2,450 years after its first performance. If you accept Euripides as the guiding light of drama, and you should, then this must rank as one of the greatest plays ever written. Mind you apparently it didn’t get rave reviews on its first run, Euripides coming last at that particular City Dionysia. The Romans took to it though as did the Renaissance Europe and it’s been a staple ever since.

However, if not re-interpreted for a modern audience, (it’s a two hander in the original), you might beg to differ. Left to the creative devices of writer and director Simon Stone you can be sure it will connect. Which it surely does. Mr Stone, an Aussie as you can see above sporting the casual surfer look, has an impressive track record, initially with new interpretations of classics in Oz and then in Europe, in Basel, Amsterdam and London. His Yerma, with Billie Piper, at the Young Vic was a knockout. And his debut film The Daughter, based on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, (he brought his stage version to the Barbican a few years ago), is also a triumph.

If that wasn’t enough the lead in his version of Medea is Marieke Heebink, who is one of the most impressive stage actors I have ever seen (Oedipus, After The Rehearsal/Persona, Kings of War, Roman Tragedies, After the Fall). MH has been with the ITA ensemble since 1994 and now seems to get first dibs on the plum mature female roles in the ITA flagship productions though there is stiff competition.

Hence I had been raving about the visit of this production to the Barbican, (hopefully ITA will be back later in the year), for months and buttonholing anyone and everyone to get a ticket for one of the five performances. As usual they completely ignored me. Well more fool you. It was magnificent.

Simon Stone has taken the true story of one Deborah Green and woven this in to the classic Medea story. Ms Green is an American doctor who has spent 22 years in prison for attempting to poison her husband and setting fire to her house in 1995, killing two of her children. Her marriage to fellow doctor Michael Farrar was volatile but it was his affair with Margaret Hacker which prompted Deborah Green to become increasingly unpredictable with Farrar eventually leaving the family house. One of their daughters managed to escape the blaze.

In the play Marieke Heebink plays Anna, a research scientist whose own career has been eclipsed by her former assistant, and husband, Lucas (Aus Greidanus Jr), as she has brought up their two sons Gijs (Poema Kitseroo) and Edgar (Faas Jonkers). Lucas has moved in with the much younger Clara (Eva Heijnen) who happens to be the daughter of Christopher (Leon Voorberg), the head of the Institute where Anna and Lucas work. Anna has returned home after a breakdown and an attempt to poison Lucas. Her increasingly frantic attempts to get Lucas back, to rebuild her family and return to work, all fail and so we build up to the inevitable, though still shocking, conclusion.

All this is played out on Bob Cousins’s unadorned, brilliant white, set, (redolent of lab and hospital), with a panel above on which the sur-titles are projected, (the play is in Dutch with translation from Vera Hoogstad and dramaturg Peter van Kraaij), as well as the videos taken by the two sons for their school project. This allows us to cut to the actors at moments of high drama and provides a vital plot development. Just about the cleverest use of on stage video the Tourist has seen. The blank set does eventually see some adornment in the form of blood and ash but that’s about all. The costumes, courtesy of regular ITA collaborator An D’Huys, are nondescript modern dress.

So all our attention is focussed on the story and the characters. This is, once again, an immensely physical performance, not just from Ms Heebink but also from Aus Griedanus Jr. Watching her unravel and watching him watching her unravel is utterly compelling. There is no sign of a god, no Medea rising up with the dead bodies in the chariot of the Sun God, and Mr Stone has wisely only intersected with the detail of the original plot where it makes sense and fits the narrative of the Green story. Even so it has the same visceral power as Euripides and the same ability to make you sympathise with Medea/Anna who understandably takes revenge as everything that makes up her life is taken away from her.

The set and Simon Stone’s direct text, (created as the performance takes place), also means no time is wasted in scene setting or exposition. Scenes just pile up into each other. This means the play takes just 80 minutes adding to its raw impact and the clarity of its message. There are moments of tenderness and much humour in the family scenes with both of the young actors playing the sons turning in polished performances to match there more seasoned colleagues. Eva Heijnen’s pregnant Clara, in her dismissal of the desperate and bitter Anna, is especially cutting and the drinking scene between Lucas and Christopher shows male privilege at its most crudely transparent. Indeed every scene has been thought through in detail, there is not a wasted line or movement in the entire play. Intensity. Perfectly distilled.

I was pretty sure this would be one of the best things I would see this year, or indeed, any year. It was. Mind you a string of reviews from its previous staging pretty much guaranteed it would be. Even so when theatre is this good there is nothing better. Simon Stone is quoted in the programme notes. “I think theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?” Quite. Though I would say it is the most important art form of this, or any, time.

Can’t wait for Simon Stone’s next move. Electra might be fun.