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Column: Art / Music / Theatre

Front row at the theatre wars: Simon Stone’s The Cherry Orchard

by Dion Kagan , September 10, 20132 Comments

Photo by Jeff Busby


By the time I belatedly sat down in the Sumner theatre to see Simon Stone’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard I had other dramas on my mind. Shadowing the reception of MTC’s production was a minor shitstorm around the supposed battle between ‘new writing’ and ‘adaptation’. The Australian played host to said shitstorm, which was kicked off by Rosemary Neil who criticised main stage theatres for favouring the (re)production of imported works and classics over original Australian playwriting.

Essentially, Neil argued that reworking classics is a commercially motivated, lazy artistic practice which kills playwrights. Framed as a question, it might have been a good one, raising productive issues, if not particularly new ones. Unfortunately, potentially fruitful questions were framed in ways that made their posers appear stubborn, hostile, non-reflexive and petulant and, I suspect, The Australian is largely responsible for this.

Anyone who read the coverage would be forgiven if they came to the conclusion that people in the theatre world are hysterical, thin-skinned and bitchy. Instead of a considered intervention, Neil was allowed to have a hissy fit. She singled out Simon Stone and Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director Marion Potts as conspirators in a supposed culture of ‘auteur directors’ (Stone) nurtured by artistic powerbrokers (Potts) at the expense of struggling Australian playwrights. Stone and Potts, villains in The Plot To Sweep Playwrights Off The Stage, had allegedly said ‘extraordinarily arrogant and dismissive things’ about Australian playwrights and ‘offend[ed] against the art of playwriting’, according to Neil.

Though he has directed original works, Stone is better known for taking the likes of Chekhov, Brecht and Ibsen and, so to speak, tearing them a new dramatic arsehole. But, ‘let’s not pretend’, Neil wrote, ‘that this director’s penchant for reworking classics that have a proven track record is as courageous or important as a creating a new, powerful play with no track record’.

Wherever one might have ended up sitting in relation to what is ‘hard’, ‘courageous’ and ‘important’ vis-à-vis theatre, if you were reading The Australian you were in the front row of a soap opera in which the lines were very clearly drawn. Instead of a nuanced discussion of the transformed role of the playwright, for example, or the meaning and value of adaptation, the debate was quickly presented as a ‘generational battle’ by a newspaper trading in the dramaturgy of schadenfreude.

In response to Neil’s jagged invective, artistic director of Belvoir Street theatre Ralph Myers wrote of the changing dimensions of The Playwright in contemporary theatre. He also shared a tragicomic anecdote about Belvoir Street needing ‘to reinstate the final scene of [their] recent production of Death of a Salesman because a disgruntled baby boomer phoned the executors of playwright Arthur Miller’s estate in New York and dobbed [them] in for cutting it’. It’s a telling story but, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t taken in very good humour by the boomers.

In response came an angry letter from playwright Peter Flemming: ‘Sydney theatre has never shown lasting respect to the builders of our theatrical tradition’ and if Myers’ ‘speculation about old playwrights feeling “sidelined by a new generation” were ever uttered by a politician or by any real public figure, they would be thoroughly condemned faster than you could say “Eddie McGuire”’. Personally, I think the moment a sub-editor allowed Flemming’s letter to be published under the title ‘Can Ralph Myers be taken seriously?’ all bets were off.

Now enter Aubrey Mellor (former artistic director of Playbox, now Malthouse Theatre), stage left, who added the not-so-edifying statements: ‘Loose adaptations lack respect for the original work’. And then this slightly unbelievable question: ‘why would the Chinese want to do Antigone when they could write a new play about the man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square?’ Though Alison Croggon and Andrew Fuhrmann differ wildly on Stone’s Cherry Orchard, on the incendiary, exploitative character of the coverage they seem to agree: for her, ‘inflammatory’; for him, a ‘phoney debate’. Suffice it to say, there’s probably been some awkward moments in theatre foyers in recent months.

Alongside Adelaide critic Jane Howard, Croggon has bothered to do what the newspaper responsible for this shitstorm might have paid a journalist to do – crunch the numbers. Their findings? ‘New plays are still the most popular means of producing new Australian theatre’, accounting for almost 60 percent of main stage Australian productions. And, compared with a decade ago, ‘our main stages produced no fewer new Australian plays than they did in 2003.’ They settled at least one aspect of the debate: as Croggon wrote in the comments section of her article on ABC Arts, the adaptation question is a ‘furphy’.

When I eventually saw the play, the adaptation issue wouldn’t go away. A point made by Andrew Bovell (of Speaking in Tongues, a.k.a. Lantana, fame) and re-spruiked by Rosemary Neil, echoed in my head: Bovell apparently said that the adaptations trend (though it’s not evident there is one) demonstrates that ‘theatre companies are more interested in directorial style than in contemporary issues’. I had assumed – contentiously, it turns out – that it had become commonplace to acknowledge that adaptations of classics were actually extremely fertile territory for the working through of ‘contemporary issues’.

I don’t feel qualified enough to postulate on what Chekov would have thought about the shitstorm surrounding Stone’s Cherry Orchard, but there is a line in Stone’s play that makes me think he would have agreed on the contemporary salience of the adaptation: ‘People shouldn’t go to the theatre. They should look more often at themselves’. Obviously it’s a moment of exquisite irony on Chekhov’s and Stone’s part.

As for us, we’ve been recycling classics for a long time now, across all art forms. It’s time to get over a reflex suspicion of this practice. Of course, not all adaptations will be worthy meditations on the contemporary condition, but the desire of artists to return to classic texts, and the desire of audiences to see them reinvented, I think, speaks for itself.

Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist, academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University. 

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  • Naomi Anderson

    Simon Stone has stated, in more than one interview, that he wants to use the theatre to ‘entertain.’ There’s nothing essentially wrong with that objective, but it is what is essentially wrong with his adaptations. The Cherry Orchard is one of my favourite plays, and Simon Stone has ruined my image of it forever. Sure, it may have been ‘entertaining’ in spades, for some audience members. However, it lacked the heart, the compassion, the depth and the layers of Anton Chekhov’s work. Chekhov was a genius, with a great deal more motivation for writing plays than ‘entertainment.’ I could not have cared less about the characters in Stone’s Cherry Orchard. They were mostly just narcissistic. Chekhov’s characters in The Cherry Orchard had elements of narcissism, but they were complex individuals, and most of all, they were, for the most part, exceptionally vulnerable characters that made the audience care. Chekhov spent much of his life as a doctor working for no money with people undergoing huge suffering in Syberia. His mentor was Tolstoy – one of the greatest thinkers, and most compassionate individuals to ever have put pen to paper. Chekhov’s plays (like all classics) remain relevant for all of us, because they so accurately portray the human condition, regardless of when and where the circumstances take place. I don’t have an issue with translators making the language more accessible- as Tom Stoppard did in his recent translation of The Cherry Orchard. But, unlike Simon Stone, Stoppard is a great mind, a great playwright, and someone who respects the work of the kind of pure genius shown by rare characters such as Tolstoy and Chekhov. In contrast, Simon Stone is just a little upstart, recent graduate from the VCA whose ‘Hayloft’ Project impressed other raw beginners because of its supposed ‘radicalism’. Simon Stone will disappear into history, because he is a mere ‘fad’, and very far from being any kind of genius- which is perhaps the reason that he has no regard, or respect for minds far greater than his own, and for souls who have subjected themselves to endless, rigorous perfecting of a craft in order that it serves humanity for a very long time to come.

  • Dion Kagan

    I understand the impulse to feel protective of a beloved text and writer and I think many of us feel that impuse from time to time with adaptations. But I’m suspicious of when that feeling translates into an attack, which looks to me like defensiveness and unreflexive fidelity thinly veiled by what is in fact a pretty reactionary, boring argument about the sacred, transcendent canonical text and the ‘genius’ of its author. I think it’s important to bear in mind that there can be genius in ‘fads’, though there isn’t always, as well as the arts that remains ‘to serve humanity for a very long’ time. The kind of apoplectic reaction that people sometimes have to those, like Stone, who dare to *do things* (including entertain) with classic texts really surprises me. (It’s fine not to like the work, but why be so mean? Is there any need to call him a ‘little upstart’?). If Stone is a ‘fad’ who will soon be forgotten, then why the aggressive response? Has he *really* ruined your image of The Cherry Orchard forever? If so, perhaps he’s actually done something more powerful and affective that you care to admit in his interpretative and transformative work with Chekhov?

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