Curious about The Cherry Orchard?
Meet the esteemed theatre-makers, Katherine Tonkin & Adriane Daff
The chaotic comedy of Kath and Kim takes a Russian fling when esteemed theatre-makers Adriane Daff and Katherine Tonkin give Chekhov’s last great comic masterpiece The Cherry Orchard new life with Black Swan State Theatre Company for Perth Festival 2021.
We sat down with the talented duo to discuss the inspiration and development of this hilarious Aussie adaptation.
Scroll down to read the full Q&A.
What drew you to The Cherry Orchard? Why this play?
Katherine Tonkin | Working on this version of The Cherry Orchard together was really born out of a conversation that our wonderful director Clare Watson initiated. She came to us with this idea to set it in rural WA in the 80s and we just ran with it.
We were drawn to this play for so many reasons. Chekhov has created these characters that are so perfectly imperfect, all just trying to find their way through the maze of life. It really speaks to the heart of what it is to be human – all the desires and denials, our need to feel seen, the impulse to escape, the dreams, the losses, the hopes and regrets. We see it all played out over the course of a few months as the fate of the cherry orchard is being decided. There’s been a long-standing debate around whether or not this play is a comedy or a tragedy, and when you look at the plot line alone it really is a pretty tragic story, and yet Chekhov always insisted it was a comedy. It’s beautiful in that way. It’s like some kind of testament to the resilience of the human spirit – the way we keep leaning towards laughter and an instinct for connection like plants lean towards the light.
The Cherry Orchard was written over a hundred years ago in 1903. Do you think it still has relevance for audiences today?
Katherine Tonkin | Absolutely, it’s fascinating to consider the parallels between Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary Russia and the societal shifts that are being called for across the world today. Questions around privilege, prejudice and who stands to benefit from the suffering of others are central themes to the play, and these same issues are now being examined on a global scale in a way that they haven’t been for a long time. Chekhov’s Russia saw the emancipation of the Serfs, the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of a new middle class. It was a time of great social and political upheaval. The Cherry Orchard asks some pertinent questions around land ownership and belonging, which, in light of our colonial history, feel like timely provocations for Australian audiences to sit with today.
Why did you decide on an Australian remaking or would you describe this play as an adaption?
Katherine Tonkin | We found the contextual and thematic resonances of this play with Australia and our shameful treatment of our First Nations peoples too pertinent to ignore. So much of what Chekhov wrote, particularly in the character of Trofimov, felt like it was speaking directly to the heart of a blinkered white Australia. It felt like a play we had to hear.
How much of the Chekhov original have you kept in the show?
Katherine Tonkin | It’s interesting, in many ways- what we’ve offered up is a very faithful rendering of Chekhov’s play. Yes, we’ve re-contextualised various things to suit the era and the setting, but we’ve really tried to stay true to much of Chekhov’s writing. I guess we’d call it a re-imagining. Yes, we’ve set our version in 1980’s Australia, but it wears its Russian origins on its sleeve. It reverberates forwards and backwards in time, speaking to our past, and – hopefully – our future.
What do you find easier – adapting a work or writing your own from scratch?
Adriane Daff | This is our first time adapting something, with both of us having more experience in 'writing from scratch' historically. It was a really wonderful time; we loved the process of reading every version of the play we could get our hands on and looking into even the most minute aspects of Chekhov’s life. In a way, that research part almost made us feel like detectives putting clues together to provide a bigger context of the time this play was born out of. Knowing that it was Chekhov’s last play and something he wrote as he was dying, that he was desperate for it to be a comedy (Stanislavski disagreed) and that most of the rewriting needed to happen via long-distance correspondence because of Chekhov's ill health adds a lot of weight. Not the least in the uncanny ways that Chekhov's work continues to ripple and reflect hundreds of years later (the long-distance working relationship, oh-so fitting for where we find ourselves right now). T
his production has suffered its fair share of COVID blows (not an unfamiliar story to anyone, we know) and all we kept thinking was... Chekhov did this while dying of tuberculosis. He was only 44. We owe it to him to push on. Every time another curl in the tail would come getting this production up, I took to muttering under my breath 'oh Anton you're not going to believe this one'. The whole thing has been perfectly Chekovian and we like to think he would find it hilarious and fitting. To quote the great man directly, 'Any idiot can face a crisis; it's the day-to-day living that wears you out'. I hope us idiots did him proud.
Tell us about the setting of this work. How important was it?
Adriane Daff | There's something immediate about setting a Russian classic in our backyard, something that takes it away from being just analogy. But, again, to give full credit where it's due, the idea to set this in Manjimup came via director Clare Watson. For those familiar with the area's famous 'Cherry Festival' it wasn't beyond a reasonable imagination that our version of The Cherry Orchard could take place in this part of the country. Add the 80s to this; a time when Australia had just enjoyed the success of an America's Cup (a win in 1983 and then a loss in 1987 – the year our play is set) and corruption was running rife, not just courtesy of Alan Bond mind you – the idea of privilege and wealth was rolling over to reveal its ugly underbelly. It all seemed too good to be true because it was. The year 1987 kept popping up for a bunch of reasons, we don't want to destroy too many easter eggs within the script but if an audience member was around at that time they may find familiar a few references we have dotted throughout the script.
Does this reimagining have any similar vibes to any iconic Australian plays or TV shows that audiences might be familiar with? Kath and Kim? A Moody Christmas?
Adriane Daff | During the process of writing we liked to call this A Country Practice meets The Royal Tenenbaums. By design we have tried to write something that is not entirely contemporary so these characters in our The Cherry Orchard don’t necessarily speak like the folk from Kath and Kim or A Moody Christmas The original Russian text demanded something a bit more timeless of us and perhaps forced a challenge to us as writers – to make it Australian but never let go of its roots. However in saying that, we believe that good art offers up questions not answers (another Chekhovian idea) and whatever an audience may see in this piece tonally or stylistically, well, there’s absolutely no wrong answers. We are very much looking forward to hearing audience feedback about what and who they see reflected in play.
The Cherry Orchard runs until Sun 14 Mar
Banner image Daniel J Grant