Deliberately messy editing of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard irritates and arouses admiration

The Cherry Orchard directed by Tiago Rodrigues, with Isabelle Huppert on the right.Statue of Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Hard and almost dangerously scary, he looks out of his eyes, and for full blast, he screams his excitement out into the room. Yes, we will all know and hear it, and never forget it: he bought the estate and the cherry orchard! He, Lopachin, son of a serf, is now lord and master of the place where his parents and grandparents were always the subordinates and exploiters.

In the performance la cerisaie which the Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues made based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, this moment of tortured euphoria is a turning point. Especially since the role of Lopachin is played by the black actress Adama Diop, which makes the reference to slavery unmistakable. This somewhat unpolished, deliberately messy and rather deconstructed version of The Cherry Orchard get a huge load here. Incidentally, several colored actors walk around the ensemble, regardless of role, rank or position, but that Diop plays the provoked peasant son is without a doubt a statement.

This French production of The Cherry Orchard, the opening performance of the Festival d’Avignon in 2021, was performed last weekend at the Holland Festival, and had another attraction: Isabelle Huppert. The French star actress played Lyubov, the disgraced owner of the estate and the cherry orchard. In Chekhov’s plays, she represents the ruling class, which longs for times gone by and knows that they will never return. After spending six years with a wrong lover in Paris, she returns without money to her childhood home in Russia. A house with a beautiful old cherry orchard, but also the house where the grief lives: a long time ago, her son drowned in the river next to the house.

When she returns, surrounded by a rattling, colorful entourage, she is confronted with the grim reality: Lopachin wants her to cut down her cherry orchard so that cottages can be built that generate money. But she refuses – or at least: she doubts. Eventually, Lopachin buys the garden himself, and at the end of the piece, the cherry trees are still destroyed. The new era has irrevocably arrived. Lyubov goes to Paris again, back to his lover.

Isabelle Huppert, meanwhile, plays her part in her characteristic, almost careless, lightning-fast way of speaking. She flutters across the stage like a forgotten diva, uttering screams and meanwhile putting great musicality into her treatment of the lyrics. At first she seems indifferent to what is happening around her, but once her fate is sealed, she finally realizes that her time is over. Wonderful how Huppert then takes hold, and her confusion leaves room for resignation.

Director Tiago Rodrigues goes out of his way not to stage a classic Chekhov. Large pieces of landscape slide back and forth on the huge stage, on which there are light poles with numerous chandeliers. Three musicians play loud guitar music, and now and then a sweet song, like the melancholy a va-changer† In the big party scene, the actors dance almost silently back and forth in a trance. The confrontation between Lyubov and Petya, the eternal student and benefactor, is a climax: a clash between two divergent images of man. Also beautiful are a number of characters’ doomed attempts to embrace love; Chekhov is not only about money worries and past glories, but also, and perhaps above all, about love in all stages.

In terms of playing style, this is it cherry garden rather unbalanced. The acting is crowded and at times screaming, and because the many characters are constantly roaming the stage, it’s hard to figure out who’s who, no matter how many times you’ve seen this play. In Rodrigues’ direction, everything works towards the one crucial moment: the cherry orchard is sold, the serf becomes the owner, the slave becomes the master. Then all the scenery, chairs and chandeliers and only a bare scene in cold light disappear. Lopachin then addresses the audience directly and says there is no point in playing the last act anymore. But they do it anyway, and it becomes a nicely conducted farewell ritual.

All in all, this remarkable cherry garden a shifting performance that irritates, arouses admiration and yet moves here and there through all the hassle. In fact, just like life itself. In fact, as Chekhov must have thought.

Portuguese theater maker Tiago Rodrigues (45) is not only a director but also an actor; in Holland and Belgium he is quite famous because he played for Tg Stan for a number of years. In 2015, he became artistic director of the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon. Larger performances of him have previously been shown here, such as Antony and Cleopatra during the Holland Festival in 2019 and sopro Breath) during the ITA Brandhaarden festival in 2020. The last performance was about the back of the theater; the protagonist was the prompter who had worked there for a lifetime. Last year, it was announced that Rodrigues will artistically lead the Festival d’Avignon, starting with the 2023 edition. Because his performances can be seen at all major theater festivals, he is also known as the ‘star of European theater’.

The Cherry Orchard (La cerisaie)


By Anton Chekhov, director Tiago Rodrigues, co-production Festival d’Avignon.

10/6, Holland Festival, International Theater Amsterdam.

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