Review | ‘The Cherry Orchard’ relocates to 1980’s Bond-era Perth

The Cherry Orchard | Sunset Heritage Precinct | Until 14th February | ★ ★ ★  

On a balmy Summer evening, on the site of an old abandoned Dalkeith hospital, approximately 150 West Australians were treated to a highly comic, stylised yet poignant interpretation of Russian classic, The Cherry Orchard.

I say “interpretation” as to call it a direct version would not do justice either to Anton Chekov’s socially ironic 1903 original nor to Black Swan State Theatre’s innovative boomtime frolic, set at the height of Alan Bond’s golden 80’s.

Taking place in our own fair state during the hot Summer of 1983, as opposed to the original delicacy of feudal Russia, this heavily adapted tale directed by Black Swan Artistic Director Clare Watson, plays out over 3 immersive locations: The faded grandeur of a very 80’s town hall, adapted for all interior scenes, a latticed veranda complete with obligatory concrete swans and Fruity Lexia, and finally, a roast-onion-scented barbeque complete with river vistas and picnic blankets.

The naturalistic staging, interior textures and cohesive colour theory of the set (and adapted natural settings) from BSSTC veteran designer Zoe Atkinson, were sensitively lit by Lucy Birkinshaw and worked together well to help cultivate an immersive theatrical experience.

In keeping with the interpretative feel of this new work, the costuming gave a general, albeit paper-doll, sense of the era, without pinning down specifics.

This said, to the uninitiated, the clothing scheme did not immediately, nor clearly, communicate whom the characters were, nor their social status or position, within this new 1980’s exploration during the “home” scenes, however aesthetic referencing of 80’s icons such as Madonna and Paul Weller’s Style Council, certainly helped pull back focus to the centerpiece of the show, the garden party.

Some strong performances wove their way throughout. Leading lady Hayley McElhinney whom played jaded heiress Ranyevstaya, were an absolute treat to behold. Her nuanced, subtle style perfectly suited the intimate settings and pained whimsy of her “Mrs Robinson” character portrayal.

The evergreen George Shevtsov provided much-needed subtlety and pathos to the character of Firs, the long suffering waiter, by book-ending the production with his wry, expressive portrayal.

Ben Mortley as wheeler-dealer Lophakin, convinced us all of his shallow motivations in a rollicking performance of nouveau-riche, bogan chic and slick, champagne elitism that even Bondy would be proud of.

Brendan Hanson performed beautifully and brought intent, authenticity and warmth to Uncle Gayev, as an actor, although one could not help but feel the diminishment of his character served little beyond yet another tokenistic, representation of a lonely gay character, lusting after the hot, unattainable straightey, as easy, camp, comic relief.

This aside, the cast generally appeared well-bonded with a real sense of relationship and pathos. The interactions of Sam Longley, Grace Chow, Emily Rose Brennan, Mark Nannup, Humphrey Bower and Bridie McKinn made for a complimentary canvas of sub-story and interaction.

On the whole, this ambitious, Antipodean take on a well-loved European classic had some highly entertaining moments and performances amidst a few missed opportunities.

The advent of lockdown has affected us all, the arts more than most. Social cliches aside, BSSTC have done well to make this interpretation as cohesive, slick and familiar as possible considering recent circumstances, however one can not help but feel that with another week in the oven (and perhaps a touch more nuance) to hone, shape and refine, that it would shine like a new 80s skyscraper.

Get tickets to see The Cherry Orchard from Perth Festival

Tom Pearson

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