Blossoms must bleed

The Cherry Orchard is not a costume drama. STAN puts the classic through a postmodern mincing machine, and the result is a well-known but delightful farce, though one that preserves the essence of this Chekhov. Should we complain or clap when they chop down the cherry trees?

In 1861 the Russian tsar abolished serfdom, a disguised form of slavery that made peasants the property of gentlemen. Russia came late to the European party. Too late. Until then Russia’s lords and masters had escaped the guillotines and parliament which were conquering the Continent. Anton Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard in 1903. Fourteen years later the Bolshevists stormed the tsar’s winter palace.

Fortunately for Lyubov (Jolente De Keersmaeker), things last a little longer, though she is not totally carefree as she oversees her beloved cherry orchard. The aristocracy is strapped for cash. She turns a deaf ear to the advice of Lopakhin (Frank Vercruyssen) – once a peasant, now a businessman, always a childhood friend.

Pomo

STAN rummages around in its beloved, postmodern box of tricks. This Russian occasionally gets left behind too. Actors keep an ironic distance from rather corny lines. “Help, I’m fainting,” says housemaid Dunyasha drily. Other actors read stage directions out loud or speak directly to us. The fourth wall between actors and audience crumbles away completely when conjuring governess Charlotta (Rosa Van Leeuwen) takes a seat bang in the middle of the audience.

JDX/A Public Enemy, with which STAN made its breakthrough in 1993, was overflowing with such artifices. Then they dusted off Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Now they have made The Cherry Orchard into an anti-costume drama.

Even if that same ironic distance also distances us from the play, STAN sweeps us along effortlessly. Can the actors take the credit? Partly. For example Bert Haelvoet is marvellous as Pishchik. The pee-sucking friend of the family literally shakes out the eccentric Lyubov’s bags. Unfortunately we don’t fail to notice that Haelvoet and Stijn Van Opstal play double roles. And if we are looking to nitpick, the last scenes do drag slightly.

What really wins you over is the set. Peeling window frames on wheels turn the empty stage into a decaying country house. And the light.  It streams sideways over the stage, from bright daylight to a melancholic twilight. We get goose pimples when evening falls.

Hard roubles

Technology and script reach their climax at Lyubov’s ball. “Barons and lords once used to come here. Now they even invite the postman”, sighs manservant Firs (Stijn Van Opstal). It makes no difference. The speakers pump and the actors storm. “One day baby, we’ll be old baby, and we think about the stories we could have told.”

Until the record has finished. The estate is up for sale. The cherry orchard is chopped down. The new owner? Lopakhin. His grandfather and father owned this land. Now he owns the land.

So it is tempting to read The Cherry Orchard as social satire. Who mourns the passing of a few unworldly aristocrats? Though some of them are not at all bad. But the steamroller of progress turns cherry trees into hard roubles. What is soft and perhaps pointless disappears. A curious elitism which many a left-wing hobbyist wrestles with.

Several rows behind us sat Flemish Minister for Culture. Curious to know what he made of this Russian.

Sam Rijnders, Veto, May 17th 2015

Engels