Tubular steel chairs with plastic meshes are lined up in rows on the stage of Hall E in the MuseumsQuartier, as if waiting for an audience. On the right wall are massive, multi-armed lamp constructions, fitted with crystal chandeliers from the past 200 years. From the Biedermeier chandelier to a spherical design variant of our days, everything is represented. Like heavy fruit, they hang from artificial branches, but also draw attention to the fact that the rule on the Russian estate where Anton Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” takes place has lasted for several generations.
In the right background of the stage, a small group of people is gathered. It is the ensemble of director Tiago Rodrigues, who has gathered the actors and actresses from various European countries for his production of the Russian stage classic. “It’s the first time I’ve chosen the ensemble to play very specific roles,” the future director of the Avignon Festival explained at the audience discussion following the premiere. In 2021, the premiere took place in Avignon, and the Wiener Festwochen is one of a total of ten other cooperation partners that will still show the play. The photos shown here are from the Avignon setting. However, the stage in the Museumsquartier had a completely different effect, not only in terms of lighting, but primarily because of the modern ambience. In his previous works, three of which have been presented at the Vienna Festival in recent years, the Portuguese director had developed the roles together with the ensemble. Originally, he wanted to see how he could deal with Chekhov, but it soon became clear to him that not a single sentence should be different from the way the writer had formulated them. “Everything is perfect about the text, it would be presumptuous to add or omit anything” – was his further comment.
Starting with his desired cast, the lady of the manor Lioubov, for whom he was able to win Isabelle Huppert, he formed a diverse team around her with some People of Colour. However, according to Rodrigues, this was not connected with any dramaturgical idea. However, he and the ensemble only realised during rehearsals that this opened up a special window of interpretation at a certain point.
The stage set by Fernando Ribeiro remains the same throughout the play, but is rearranged and moved around as time goes on. Soon the chairs are arranged into a large pile of chairs – symbolic of the changes taking place in the manor house, around which the beautiful cherry orchard is situated. In this play, Chekhov described the downfall of the feudal era with its serfdom and the emergence of a new system in which those with luck and ability can free themselves from poverty. This upheaval, which completely shifted the social system, is effectively made visible by Ribeiro. In the end, the large lamp constructs will no longer be placed along the right side of the stage, but along the left side, and there will no longer be a chair in its centre. The power that shifted from the political right to the left after the tsarist rule in Russia and at the same time the emptiness of a social order that first had to be filled – all this resonates grandly in this stage design.
At the beginning of the evening, however, Adama Diop introduces Chekhov’s play with a few words and briefly tells us about its genesis. He then brilliantly embodies the role of Lopakhine, the man whose parents and grandparents were still serfs on the Lioubov estate. Having become wealthy, it is he who will finally buy it at auction. The breaking of the “fourth wall” is not only noticeable at the beginning of the performance. Many of the monologues are addressed by the actors and actresses not to their personal counterparts but directly to the audience. Before the beginning of the fourth act, Diop does this again to note that the play could actually have ended at this point – after the estate was auctioned off. In fact, Chekhov added the last act later, because he did not want “Cherry Orchard” to be understood as a drama, but as a tragicomedy. Thus, after the great financial, but also psychological, crash that hit all the people who had been connected with the estate, he pacified the events with a farewell scene. Although the future of all those involved is uncertain, everyone nevertheless sets off in hope and scatters to the winds. Lioubov, who has to realise that the carefree time of spending money is over for her once and for all and that her parental home is lost, and the old servant Firs, who has lost his purpose in life, serving, and is now left behind alone, are the only ones who no longer have a glimmer of hope.
Tiago Rodrigues adds another monumental musical layer to the action, cleverly separating the individual scenes from each other and, in some cases, underscoring them. Manuela Azevedo and Hélder Gonçales rock not only the stage but the hall with a stage piano, drum sounds and an electric guitar, at the same time shifting the narrative into the present. The director places the characters sharply on the edge of a commedia dell’arte manner. When they are happy, they are out of control, jumping, leaping and cheering. Great gestures, but also strong, emotional moments, which Isabelle Huppert in particular knows how to contribute with bravura, characterise this play. It is fascinating to see how she manages to change in an instant from an overexcited, fun-loving woman to one deeply grieving for her son. This strongly felt emotion is immediately transmitted to the audience and at the same time makes it clear with what high acting skill Huppert is acting here.
She is matched by Marcel Bozonnet, who plays the old servant Firs. Dressed like Freddie Frinton as the servant in the world-famous dinner-for-one sketch and also acting with the latter’s clumsy habitus, he touches the audience from the first to the last performance. Adama Diop’s skin colour alone finally creates the turning point in the interpretation that allows the play to be seen from a completely new angle. Torn between rage and anger resulting from the history of his family and the new role as landowner, which he cannot yet really grasp, he experiences psychological ups and downs, which he is not really able to cope with. His furious justification of the purchase of the estate resonates enormously with the colonial brute force from whose after-effects most of the former European colonies are still suffering today.
This interpretive approach – even if it was not originally intended – cannot be disregarded in the critical examination of the production. It resonates strongly, brought about by our zeitgeist, in which art, above all, has an important contribution to make in coming to terms with these criminal, inhuman and exploitative events. It is well known that it is always the spectacles of the viewers themselves that contribute to judging events individually. However, the fact that diverse ensembles are still the exception in theatres in Austria strongly contributes to this view. If the way a play is viewed can be given a new twist simply by the colour of an actor’s skin, one may conclude how great the need is to catch up in terms of diversity on our stages.
Isabel Abreu, Tom Adjibi, Nadim Ahmed, Suzanne Aubert, Océane Caïraty, Alex Descas, David Geselson, Grégoire Monsaingeon as well as Alison Valence – without exception, they are all to be mentioned for the intense portrayal of their roles.
The adherence to Chekhov’s original text, the addition of a strong musical component, an ensemble in which each and every individual was more than convincing, and the fact that the social upheaval presented can easily be transferred to our times, distinguish this production as a very memorable one.
This text has been automatically translated by deepl.com
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