Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Yes Virginia, British theatre can suck, too

 The Cherry Orchard gets lost in wheat, fields of wheat at the National Theatre.

The simulcast phenomenon has been widely praised for bringing world-class performances to the suburbs and the sticks; these days, for instance, opera lovers around the world who can't afford a trip to New York (or Met ticket prices) can catch cutting-edge productions at their local mall.  Likewise theatre lovers in the States can now sample the best of the British stage via the National Theatre's popular simulcasts (which are currently exclusively shown at the Coolidge Corner).

Or so the thinking goes.  As Hub Review readers know, I'm on the fence when it comes to simulcasts. I, too, enjoy catching great opera and theatre affordably; and I'm intrigued by the epically-scaled, yet still-theatrical quality that the best simulcasts (such as Helen Mirren's Phaedra) have had.

The trouble is that the actual productions being simulcast don't always turn out to be so great. In fact plenty of what I've seen bounced off the satellite from London or New York has been fairly mediocre; I've even walked out of more than one of these broadcasts.  As I did last week, at the National Theatre's simulcast of The Cherry Orchard, which wasn't the worst production of the Chekhov classic I'd ever seen, but was certainly a contender in the race for the bottom of that particular heap.

Yet it came garlanded with accolades.  Starring stage veteran Zoe Wanamaker, and directed by NT mainstay Howard Davies - who has helmed a series of highly-praised productions of Russian classics translated by his Cherry Orchard collaborator, Andrew Upton - the production was launched with great fanfare, and the British press pretty much fell into line behind it (the Sunday Telegraph gave it five stars, the rest of the print press generally gave it four - although there were murmured dissents, often in, yes, the blogosphere.  Why, again, do we think bloggers are less insightful than print critics?  Oh right - because the print critics say so!)

Yet despite all this advance ballyhoo, from the start of last week's simulcast I smelled a disaster in the making.  Bunnie Christie's set was so dilapidated you half-expected the family manse to collapse at intermission, and you quickly realized that translator Andrew Upton had decided to openly politicize the play while "updating" it in a crudely anachronistic style.  These Chekhovians may have been wandering around in period dress, but they bickered about "making 25 or 30k a year," shouted "Bollocks!" at each other, or  "I've told you so a thousand bloody friggin' times!" Meanwhile the political speeches in the play were extended and none-too-subtly rewritten as full-throated calls-to-arms.  This Cherry Orchard wasn't merely politically prescient; it was, instead, an overt pamphlet - for a revolution that utterly failed, btw, read in a nineteenth-century ruin but in a twenty-first century idiom.  The thing was a conceptual car crash of truly epic proportions.

But judging from my personal experience of Chekhov onstage, turning the master's warhorses into political or artistic hobbyhorses seems to be a great temptation.  One reason that the ART has also always sucked at Chekhov is that its directors are likewise determined to present the playwright as the happy herald of  revolution - any revolution; if not actually the Bolshevik revolution, then the Symbolist revolution, or the Suprematist revolution, or, believe it or not, even the Guns N'Roses "revolution."

This kind of thing is, of course, a complete violation of the subtle, skeptical balance that Chekhov is all about - plus it's just deeply stupid - so stupid I always thought you'd have to be pickled in Harvard's special brand of arrogance to imagination it could count as intelligence.  But I was wrong!  It turns out the folks at the National Theatre are just as dumb - or just as arrogant (or both).  Perhaps they felt that given the current destructive conservative mania on both sides of the Atlantic, the times called for a more politically pointed Chekhov; but alas, the Russian master never rallied anyone to the barricades, and trying to push a Brechtian template onto The Cherry Orchard isn't going to change a single vote in either the House of Commons or Representatives.

Oh, well; while the show was a mess conceptually, there were some bright spots in its cast: James Laurenson was everything he should have been, and more, as Gaev, and Sarah Woodward turned the weird Charlotta into a funny comment on the other characters' tortured self-consciousness.  Pip Carter made a solid Yepihodov, and a few other actors struck sparks here and there - Tim McMullan had his moments as Pischik, and Mark Bonnar started off well as Trofimov, but eventually proved far too studly and vigorous for the role (he wasn't helped by the fact that Upton extended his armchair-socialist speeches into fist-pumping harangues).

In the end, however, you can't pull together a Cherry Orchard without a solid central ensemble, and here the National Theatre mysteriously came up a cropper.  Zoe Wanamaker's impishness undercut Ranevskaya's famous pathos, and she couldn't make much sense of her (admittedly sudden) swings in affect.  At the same time she certainly seemed no more aristocratic than the low-born Lopakhin - here played by Conleth Hill, who threw off some funny asides at first but seemed to grow more superficial by the minute.  Likewise Claudie Blakley made little or no impression as his supposed intended, Varya, while as her younger sister, Charity Wakefield was an emphatic blank.

Sigh.  I confess this is one of those rare times when I'm penning a review without seeing the entire show - but at intermission, I realized I'd simply had enough of all these people: bad translation, variable acting, nutty set - there was no way this baby was pulling out of its nose dive, and frankly, I felt life was too short to stick around.  So I told my friends to email me if the show improved in the second half, and I'd hold off on a review till I'd caught the encore.  But the next day I saw the sad email: "You were so right.  It only got worse!"

Well, that saves me a trip back to the cinema.  But it doesn't help with my worry over the underside of the simulcast phenomenon: how does one push back against it critically?  How does one convince an audience that what they just saw wasn't really much good, and that in fact there is far better to be seen locally (as in the Huntington's Cherry Orchard of three years ago)?  Sadly, the simulcast phenomenon could sometimes represent yet another way that global branding trumps local quality.

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