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THE CHERRY ORCHARD @ Sunset Heritage Precinct gets 8.5/10

The Cherry Orchard
@ Sunset Heritage Precinct

Tuesday, February 23, 2021


Black Swan Theatre Company gave Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, a Western Australian reimagining at Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct as part of the Perth Festival season. The original play straddles the comedy-tragedy line (Chekhov wrote it as a comedy, but it hits like a tragedy) and is set in an ageing manor adjacent to a nationally famous cherry orchard in the 1880s. The orchard no longer yields productive fruit, mirroring the fading societal status of the bourgeois family that are struggling to keep up with major upheavals in the makeup of Russian society.

Enter Manjimup, WA, in the 1980s – the time and place for Black Swan’s production. The choice of setting the play at the Sunset Heritage Precinct in Dalkeith was a brilliant move, as its riverside location and dilapidated buildings evoked the original setting, and dropped the West Aussie theatre-goer right into the action.

Three different stages were employed: the ballroom of the manor (first and final acts), a barbeque (second act) outdoors near the river and a costume party (third act) in the garden theatrette.

The manor scenes were essentially performed in the round (or rather, a rectangle) with the furniture, props and actors in the middle of the room with the audience surrounding them. This generated an intimate perspective to appreciate the inner workings and dynamics of the characters, with every seat enjoying a good view.

The first act began with the return of Madame Ranevskaya (or “Rani,” played with great range by Hayley McElhinney) from St Kilda (originally Paris) after a disastrous love affair. She is accompanied by her daughter Anya (Bridie McKim), studly servant Yasha (Kieran Clancy-Lowe) and wily governess Charlotta (Michelle Fornasier). Greeting them is the upwardly-mobile Lopakhin (Ben Mortley), adopted daughter Varya (Grace Chow) and a few other hangers-on, including the elderly servant Firs (the wonderful George Shevtsov).

In this adaptation, accents were the calling cards of class, with the bolshy 80s-style entrepreneur Lopakhin and housemaid Dunyasha (a boisterous Emily Rose Brennan) sporting loud broad Aussie accents reflecting their bogan (serf-like) upbringing, whereas the manor folk possessed more refined accents reflective of their education and wealth (ala Perth’s Golden Triangle).

After the first act, the audience was led outside toward the river for the second act, with the setting an Aussie barbeque under a massive gnarled eucalypt warmly lit from below, with views of the river through a row of trees and the moon shining down (a kookaburra even flew in above the actors to see if any snags were on offer). Various romantic dalliances took place here, and a feature of the play was that affections were misplaced and unrequited, with passionate interludes giving way to create frustrated would-be lovers.

Lopakhin implored the family to think entrepreneurially to save the manor by subdividing the cherry orchard into holiday units to pay the bills, but the family is unable to “think outside the box” and naively believe things will magically work out for the best as they’ve done in the past. Anya and Trofimov (Mark Nannup) linger at the end of the scene, with Trofimov relocating the pain of the serf’s back-breaking work to maintain the orchard and wealth of the bourgeoisie in the original, to the Swan River colony’s usurpation of Noongar lands in the 19th century; a powerful twist from the Russian to the modern WA setting of the play.

After the intermission (tip: go the pre-order nibbles on offer, and the vodkas will certainly put you in the spirit), the garden party scene took place in an outdoor theatrette with one of the ramshackle buildings as the backdrop. This was where the wheels began to fall off of the action, with vodka-fuelled emotions running high during the party and Lopakhin’s big reveal that he’s bought the property for an obscene price and now controls the manor and orchard’s fate, and by extension its residents too.

The final act returned us to the manor ballroom, with the house packed up for sale and chainsaws (not axes) heard in the background cutting down the beloved cherry trees. The tragic nature of the events were tempered by many of the characters such as the idealistic Trofimov and Anya looking forward to their new lives, and even Firs accepting his fate to die in the boarded-up manor.

Overall, Black Swan’s The Cherry Orchard is a delightful experience. The gorgeous setting at Sunset Heritage Precinct, the snappy re-interpretation of the script to 1980s WA and the great local cast performing enthusiastically combined well for a relatively intimate audience.

McElhinney as Remi and Mortley as Lopakhin put in fantastic performances, as their roles required a wide emotional range in trying to grapple with their beliefs and the reality before them. Chow was a real presence, providing a fiery voice of reason as Varya, with Shevtsov as the trapped-in-the-past Firs with his wry observations grounding the proceedings throughout. Other actors brought their own special flair to their roles, making the moderately large ensemble a joy to take in collectively.

The Cherry Orchard
made for a fun evening out to experience a classic play in a unique Perth setting. Although the play was intended by Chekhov to be a comedy, the tragic themes of loss driven by the blindness of clinging to the old unchanging ways (personally or societally) were manifest emotionally in the play. But these tragic themes were somewhat countered by the playful and comedic scenes, outdoor settings and lively script and performances that made this WA production an evening to remember.


Photos by Daniel Grant

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