Theatre Royal Stratford East
25 October 2016
There comes a moment, shortly before the end of the first act, when Bonnie Greer’s highly imaginative and thought-provoking, contemporary US-set adaptation of Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ really lands a Mike Tyson-sized punch at the escalating wave of police killings of African Americans: the dialogue, shared between a number of characters, as one bashes the ground with a broom, sweeping up the mess left by what seems to have been a fracking-induced earthquake, runs something like this, ‘The police have shot another black man…. They’re killing our men and boys…. They’re killing Obama…. They’re killing our president… Barak Hussein Obama.’ It’s a devastatingly effective moment; a massive direct hit for the intellectual and emotional drive behind this play. You think as you go out into the interval, that the work has now found its feet, and that the slow build-up of the first half will be crowned with a powerful and necessary critique of the self-induced terror seizing the USA.
But Greer chooses not to pursue such a starkly confrontational approach. The second act, instead, takes us into a light-hearted, festive 80’s disco revival, and the tense, gripping message of social criticism is replaced by a ‘Hall of Fame’ of greats from the world of light entertainment. It appears not to be the intention of this production to engage too closely with Black Lives Matter; and the perpetrators of the horrors being played out on the streets of America continue, as they have done all this while, to get away with it. Instead of flags being cast down upon the ground – as one is just before the earth tremor strikes – we get bottles of champagne being opened, a mirthful election night party, where the inevitable triumph of Trump is accepted fatalistically, even nonchalantly. Other people have taken on this milieu and sustained a greater sense of anger: Chester Himes in ‘When He Hollers, Let Him Go’ springs to mind, and he still conveys his need to reject the cosy, ambivalent comforts of the sheltered, affluent Afro-American world, especially when they prove completely ineffectual as a barrier against the bullets of America’s police army. However, that seems not to be the issue here.
This is perhaps just as well. The trouble with using Chekov’s characters to mount any kind of attack on anything is that they aren’t very good at that sort of thing. In a way, his dramas are satirical lampoons, exposing the uselessness and pointlessness of his class, on the eve of its dissolution in a sequence of revolutions and wars that left millions of people dead and made their own concerns come across as totally petty and irrelevant. Yet, to a large extent, Chekov disguises their vacuity in his perfect delineation of the stresses and tensions between his characters. As an anatomist of human society, there is nobody finer. Greer appears to be trying to do what Chekov does: offering us both riotous human comedy and also great compassion and understanding for human weakness and frailty. This is wonderfully ambitious.
Equal to the demands of the undertaking, Theatre Royal Stratford East has mounted an extremely handsome production of this re-creation of a classic, in a staging designed in beautiful-if-distressed art nouveau manner by Ellen Cairns and lit with spectacular aplomb by Tim Lutkin. This is the home of the Mountjoys, and all similarities with the fallen fortunes of any number of Tennessee Williams’ (and others’) families is entirely uncoincidental. The costumes by Jessica Curtis achieve many eyebrow-raising moments, especially the first entrance of the much married Anita Mountjoy Sinclaire Thimbutu (Ellen Thomas in the Ranyevskaya role), in what I think is a handsome all-white Armani (among the other couture labels credited in the programme are Brooks Bros, Georg Jensen, Harris, Osaka). And in this mise-en-scene, director Femi Elufowoju, jr. does a fine job in keeping the story as real and as direct as possible: we feel we know who all these people are, that we might meet them around the next corner, especially if it’s a corner of Tribeca. Adding to the seduction, music threads its way through the narrative, as part of Simon McCorry’s sound design. Ayo-Dele Edwards marshals the choral moments. There’s some nifty movement, from Damilola K Fashola (assistant director), and Jennifer Wiltsie keeps the various accents ‘on point’ throughout.
In such a well-appointed environment, one cannot help but like the cast: El Anthony makes a humourful and athletically convincing debut as the grandiloquently titled Josiah Tripp; Madeline Appiah is bright and combative as one of the Mountjoy girls; Michael Bertenshaw is the lone caucasian, the old-faithful English butler; Nicholas Beveney is an impressive counterweight to his sister as A L Mountjoy; Andrew Dennis plays the sparky foil to him as Cornell Baxter; Abhin Galeya is the wily man-of-the-future as Karim Hassan; Lacharne Jolly is the efficient, technocratic manager, Charlotte; Corey Montague-Sholay is the rebel in touch with the mean streets of the frontline, T.K.; Claire Prempeh is the quieter daughter, Lorraine; Alexis Rodney is the splendidly transformed and consciousness-raised Michael, now called Toussaint; and Angela Wynter plays another of the staff, Jackie, and another woman, the ‘passer-by’, who – in the midst of the earthquake – smashes through the ‘realism’ of the show to confront only Anita with a message from the unimpressed and sceptical black working class from centuries of oppression and exploitation past.
This is a remarkable and magnificent work, rich in detail and meaning, and – as we approach another decisive moment in the US (and therefore also global) history – it could not have been better timed, nor more aptly designed to reflect a complex and often self-contradictory situation. Some people may feel it doesn’t hit hard enough, but that – of course – is all part of the conversation, isn’t it?
Until 12 November 2016