Cherry red drama

The Very Cherry Project (ARC Acting Studio)

Christ Church Milton

September 28 – October 2

Everything is bathed in cherry red lighting as we enter Milton’s Christ Church for ARC Acting Studio’s production (of sorts) of Anton Chekhov’s final work. It’s not just the aesthetics that place us firmly in the esteemed playwright’s “The Cherry Orchard”, however. “All Russia is our orchard” Trofimov says to Anya in reveal of the cherry orchard’s symbolism of the past. Indeed, the theme of the effects of social change remains at the forefront of the show’s messaging, despite its unique presentation style.

“The Very Cherry Project”, which has been adapted, designed and directed by Michael Beh, features the talents of two ensembles, the Seniors Ensemble for people over 60 and the ARC Professional Training Ensemble of emerging artists, presenting refractions of the play, with words and scenes reimagined, revisioned, re-languaged and reappropriated to different characters. The experimental approach, however, which sees repeat of lines and scene snippets by other actors means that some familiarity with the complex story’s dramatisation of the socio-economic forces in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, is helpful.

The tale is of an aristocratic Russian landowner who returns to her family estate (which includes a large and well-known cherry orchard) just before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage, only to allow its sale to the son of a former serf, but, it is also about a large group of characters who have a relationship with the titular orchard. This gives us many diverse and uniquely-flawed characters and the performers are magnificent in their characterisation of these. In particular, Stephanie Williams is vibrant as the attention seeking housemaid Dunyasha, while Jack Dakin brings some David Bowie swagger to the idealistic student Trofimov. And members of the Seniors ensemble are like a Greek chorus of sorts in support of the main action, sometimes even drawing their own focus as they sit as servants on the cherry orchard estate watching the action of characters from their upstairs world, before taking it in turn to contribute to the commentary on the dream-shattering effects of the country’s mass emancipation upon aristocrats and former slavery serfs alike.

A lavish attention to aesthetic detail delights from the very first scene, with the principal cast heeling about in fabulously opulent costumes of lush red and purple fabrics upon fabrics. And even if some conversations occur outside of spotlight sections and the blurred lines of realism result in some strange on-stage occurrences, its Russian sensibilities are clear, providing incentive to see more of Chekhov’s classic theatre works, as well as red-hot opportunity for its group of performers to hone their craft in what is clearly a joyous experience of expression and personal creativity.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla

Seminal sisterly sorrow

Three Sisters

QUT, The Loft

March 10 – 14

Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is a seminal text, which probably explains the number of school groups in attendance at the recent production featuring QUT BFA (Acting) Third Year Students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical) Production students. The presence of so many secondary students within the audience also serves to illustrate the challenge that presentation of the classic text poses, given its 2.5 hour+ length. With this particular share of such a fresh new version, however, its experience was engaging from start to finish.


Interest is immediately established in the show’s staging, which sees audience members seated around a stage of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together, affording the feel of immersive theatre without need for audience involvement. Everything is fragmented with incomplete door frames (courtesy of Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design) et al. The scattering of books, opulent flowers and chandeliers hint to the esteem of the family. Amongst the subdued palette, however, are design element hints as to character’s Act One relationships; while the sisters drink Moët while tottering about in heels and jewels, their servant Anfisa’s (Sidney Shorten) outfit is completed by sandshoes and their brother Andrei (Ben Jackson) stands out in striking red jacket as the head of the Prozorov household, despite his life as put-upon partner to the awkward Natasha (Jeanda St James).


The hopeful but bored titular sisters, matriarchal Olga (Lucy Heathcote), quick-tempered Masha (Isobel Grummels) and idealistic Irina (Imogen Trevillion) are trapped by circumstances in the small town of an unidentified Russian province where their late father was stationed far from Moscow in 1901. Olga fears losing herself as a teacher in the local high school, Masha is trapped in an unhappy marriage to fussy teacher Kulygin (Egan Sun-Bin) and the optimistic Irina yearns for opulence. For now, though, it is a time of celebration in honour of easily-enchanted middle sister Irina’s ‘name day’ (also the first anniversary of their father’s death), which means visit from soldiers, led by the gallant Vershinin (Tate Hinchy), bringing with them a sense of noble idealism. With army officers visiting often, the sisters have company, however, it soon becomes apparent that this is insufficient. What follows from there is a study over time of unrequited hope amongst Russian’s pre-revolutionary privileged class as each character tries desperately to eke some happiness out of their drab day-to-day existences and unrequited longing to return to Moscow.

In the QUT students’ hands “Three Sisters” is very much a play of two distinct halves. While audience members leave the theatre, interval transforms Act Two’s staging to a stark contrast to its former self, bare but for a few pieces of furniture and scattering of withered leaves in metaphoric emphasis of its change of season. Now, years later, Andrei and Natasha are married. His red jacket is gone but Natasha is garishly bejewelled and gleefully despotic as she enters Olga and Irina’s shared room (in sign that she has taken over the household). Sound (Jack Alcock) and lighting design (Jason Glenwright) convey a panicked aesthetic that is dominated by a fire in the town. In terms of the narrative, however, things are a slow burn. While its character studies are engrossing and of their own merit, however, moments of humour are welcomed as attempts at love are frustrated at every turn.


Successfully translating the narrative of “Three Sisters” to the stage needs to bring the drama of its human motivations to the surface. This is achieved through both Daniel Evans’ tight direction and the impressive work of all ensemble members. Heathcoate anchors things with a solid performance as the brave-faced and dutiful Olga, while Trevillion brings a radiant energy Irina’s deflation from optimism to disillusionment.


Jackson, meanwhile, is well cast as Andrei. While he is not often on stage, the subtlety of his performance as he gambles away the family’s future security is still noteworthy. And, St James shows incredibility versatility in her presentation of Natasha, credibly taking her from timid, dishevelled speaker of the most sense in Act One call-out of the others’ frivolous lifestyles to tables-turned wielder of obnoxious power. Also of note, as the drunken Doctor Chebutykina, Rachel Nutchey brings a consistent energy, and much comic relief through her well-timed word play and innuendo, cresendoing to an alcohol-fuelled existential crisis.


“You talk and talk the whole day long,” Masha complains to her brother Andrei late in the play. This is, indeed, a play full of people willing to talk, but who are rarely willing to listen. While it may be a long journey, in the hands of these creatives, it is more than just a study of boredom. While the motif of Chekhov’s gun appears in Act Two after an earlier firearm mention, for example, so too does a soundtrack of songs like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ as an appropriate take into interval. While the stage is sometimes frenzied with three sections being used simultaneously and a dozen characters appearing at once, this is tempered by some lovely stylised moments of slow-motion movement and alike.

Whilst on one hand, “Three Sisters” is an ominous study of sisterly sorrow and the consequences of captivity, it is also an examination of the affecting distance between dreams and reality. This production celebrates the play’s status as a cerebral work of conversations and contemplations, but does so in such a dynamic way as to make the work as accessible as ever.

Chekhov contrasts


QUT, The Loft

May 1 – 5

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”, seminal Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once stated, giving birth to the concept of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ about the power of details to create meaning and expectation in theatre. It is a quote that appears, amongst others, projected as an opening backdrop during the QUT Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) second-year students’ production of the master storyteller’s early four act work. It is a particular appropriate initial choice too, not just due to the appearance of recurring Chekhov motifs (like a gun) in the play, but as foreshadow of a work that amplifies any expectations in its enlivened realisation of the essentially pessimistic tale of 19th century Russian aristocrats.


The story centres on the pointlessly miserable Nikolai Ivanov (Jack Bannister). Once full of energy for his life, he neglects his estate, writings and wife, the terminally-ill tubercular Anna (Nicole Hoskins) who renounced her Judaism (and lost her family) to marry him. With his tragic circumstances putting him further into debt, he attempts to escape the spiral in a love affair with his much younger neighbour Sasha (Sarah Edwards).

“Ivanov” may lack the subtlety and nuance of Chekhov’s later works, where the real tragedy is that daily life has to be endured, but it does show the seeds of the playwright’s subsequent masterpieces. Indeed, it is widely believed that “Ivanov”, written when Chekhov was 27, is a comic Russian “Hamlet” and this is certainly evident in this production. We may not be emotionally engaged by Ivanov’s character, but Daniel Evans’ direction allows the comedy and the tragedy of the story to blend beautifully.

There are no weak links in across the cast and creatives. Bannister does a decent job as the self-aware titular anti-hero, especially as he monologues at-length laments after having been accused by his wife’s rigidly-moral doctor (a consistent, controlled Georgia Tucker) of being a heartless fortune-hunter. Grady Ferricks-Rosevear is an energetic Misha Borkin, making the manager of Ivanov’s estate a likeable jester in his money-making proposals and Wei Lan Zhong is absolutely hilarious in her animation of widowed estate owner, Marfa Babakina. But the greatest laughs come courtesy of William Carseldine whose manic eccentricity enhances the buffoonery of Ivanov’s uncle Matvei Shabelsky.


Performances are enhanced by a rich and cohesive aesthetic. Act One begins in sepia-toned seriousness, with a scant stage scattered with brown leaves affronting a jumble of rundown furniture pieces amidst which fairy lights tumble. This is then ostentatiously contrasted by a farcical Act Two which shouts in vibrant reds. The attention continues with the detailed set of Nicolai’s study before a year-later Act Four ends things with a bang.

Song and dance numbers also enliven the transition between acts, perfectly capturing their respective sensibilities. (A catchy ‘Call Me Maybe’, led by Carseldine is a particular standout.) Although there is a lot happening on stage, every element has been considered for its stylistic possibilities and the result is a highly-polished piece of theatre. Slick scene changes are choreographed within dance numbers and lighting dims to soften reflective, emotional monologues.

Everything about this production of “Ivanov” is first-rate. Just as he did with La Boite Theatre Company’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III”, Director Daniel Evans has not only paid homage to a classic of the theatrical cannon but found the humour and fun within a morally ambiguous play. Eamon Flack’s adaptation of the original text is nuanced already, however, in Evans’ hands it bursts with life, making it both excellent and entertaining theatre.

Before, after and always Chekhov

Chekov’s First Play (Dead Centre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 21 – 23

From its at-door sign warning of loud, sudden noises, coarse language, nudity, sexual references, pyrotechnics and smoking on stage, it is easy to recongise that Dead Centre’s “Chekhov’s First Play” is going to be take audiences far from the usual Chekov places. Yet still, in its disassembling of the great Russian playwright’s work, as well as theatre itself, the play takes its audiences to some surprising but ultimately superb places.

The show begins somewhat traditionally, apart from the fact that audience members are all wearing headphones in order to obtain Bush Moukarzel’s audio director’s commentary. This allows, he claims, for him to unclutter the complicated work and, accordingly, his words include sippets of explanation of its play’s subtext, highlight the universality and thus modernity of its metaphors about property and clarify the dramatic concept of Chekhov’s gun… providing the cast don’t muck it up by accidently skipping a few pages of dialogue. There is humour too as he makes metatheatrical observations regarding the actors, such as in reaction to their underplay of lines, moving towards offer of his opinion of them, including their flaws.

The soap-opera story of Anton Chekov’s first play, “Platonov”, which he started writing ‘before he was Chekhov’ at just 18 years of age, is of the widowed Anna Petrovna who can no longer afford the upkeep on her giant house (represented by Andrew Clancy’s imposing and immaculate redbrick set) and the benefactor trying to woo her despite her love belonging to another, already married man. At five hours in unadapted form (thanks to 83 scenes) and with a 20 character cast and multiple themes, the ambitiously complicated play is generally accepted as unstageable.

But this is far from a traditional telling, and not just due to the headphones. Things begin to change towards the abstract when the obscure Platonov arrives on stage, with the actors slipping in and out of character. As they await and then laud Platonov’s arrival, the Chekhovian language begins to breakdown; as Chinese takeaway is ordered, mention of traditional superstition is googlised and talk even turns to Kim and Kanye. Chaos soon ensures as the show’s stately staging is wrecked (literally) and the gun reappears. And it works… mainly due to Platonov, the central character, who does not utter a single word as the world implodes around him. To say more would be to ruin the impressive imagery and pack-a-punch impact of the work’s modern application of its after and always themes of ownership, translated too within a feminist discourse. All cast members are impressive, whether performing the naturalism of Chekhov’s original script or when within the heightened melodrama of later lip-synced sections.


“Chekhov’s First Play” is a hugely inventive work, not just in the realisation of its rebuild from the broken down fragments of its source material, but its concept of modern examination of a classic and show that the leading character can be any of us. Like “An Oak Tree” and Gob Squad’s “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good”, with a bit of last year’s “Confidence Man”, “Chekhov’s First Play” creates a truly memorable and though-provoking theatrical experience through its insightful reconciliation of Chekhov’s trademark naturalism with the commotion of our everyday world. Go for the comfort of its classic premise but stay for the challenge of its shattering of preconceptions. And then share your thoughts so that others might also join in the incredible privilege we have to be seeing such acclaimed work from this year’s ‘Irish Rebellion’ Brisbane Festival Artists in residence.

After Anton


Room to Play Independent Theatre, Paddington Substation Gallery

October 15 – 18

Room to Play’s production of award-winning Irish dramatist’s Brian Friel’s one act work “Afterplay” is muted and minimalist, with limited staging, which is entirely fitting given its poky Paddington Substation Gallery setting and the misery of its early 20th Century Russian literary source material. Yet despite this initial gloom, it is not short on wit and its intimacy only increases the immediacy of its impact as audiences are reintroduced to two of Anton Chekhov’s characters, 20 years after their original plays.

It is 1920s Russia when concert violinist Andrey from “The Three Sisters” (Wayne Bassett) meets strong-minded spinster estate owner Sonya from “Uncle Vanya” (Emma Skelton) in a Moscow café. As they share details of their lives and consequences of stories now long passed, it is immediately apparent how equally unhappy they are in endurance of life. It provides both fascinating and forlorn fodder for what is, in essence, a fly-on-the-café-wall audience experience, however, there is an engaging eloquence to the words as Sonya laments the ‘tundra of loneliness’ that lies ahead and Andrey considers the impact of living one’s life ‘in a waiting room’. And Basset and Skelton create some moving moments in delivery of such beautiful writing. Although likeable, however, Basset’s Andrey is bumbling and blathering in his nervous attempts to be effervescent for Sonya, to the point of distraction in the work’s initial scenes.


In many ways, the simplicity of the premise of “Afterplay” makes it the perfect show for an independent theatre group, yet in others the text represents an ambitious choice given that in conventional terms, nothing really happens. With vodka, bribery and lukewarm cabbage soup this is very much a Bolshevik Russian experience and of course it is a perfect show for those who love all things from the cult of Chekhov. However, prior knowledge is neither assumed nor needed as prerequisite for appreciation of its ingenuity, especially as intertextual references lie not only with the Russian plays but also Italian opera c/o Puccini and “La bohème”.  And best of all, unlike Chekhov’s original works, its running time is a much more reasonable 60 minutes.

Photo c/o –

Anton and then some

The Seagull (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

August 29 – September 26

“This is a story about how we tell stories,” begins Daniel Evans in his Writer and Director’s notes in the program for QTC’s “The Seagull”. And as stories go, you don’t get more robust than the dramatic works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

Pre-show, the Bille Brown Studio is filled with the grand sounds of operatic baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, however, this is an adaptation that is clearly far from its Russian traditions. Its staging is somewhat Brechtian in nature with exposed backstage wings revealing props table, costumes for changes and actors mingling around a simple wooden stage. The centrepiece is set to become location of a showing of tortured artist Konstantin’s edgy and enigmatic work, presented with his romantic interest Nina to a small audience of family and friends gathered at his fading actress mother’s lake house. The mother-son pair is not quite estranged, but their relationship is clearly troubled by their differences; his yearn is for art whereas hers is for an audience. In short it is one hell of a family reunion than can only be complicated by the romantic and artistic conflicts between its four primary protagonists.


On the wall of the Studio is a pre-show Chekhov quote: “Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling” which is an interesting commentary for a show that never falters in the hands of its accomplished cast of Brisbane theatre stalwarts. Like Chekhov’s other full-length plays, “The Seagull” relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse characters – 10 strong in this instance, not counting Stage Manager/worker Yakov (Dan Sinclair) or Anton the seagull. And each one of them convey with equal effect the passion and empathy that are hallmarks of the playwright’s works.

As the celebrated, melodramatic Irina, Christen O’Leary is not particularly likeable in her driven demeanour and self-centredness. By her own admittance, motherhood is not a role to which she has taken, as the audience sees in her pronouncement to her son Konstantie (Nicholas Gell) that he is full of air and devoid of talent. As her lover, esteemed author Boris Trigorin, Jason Klarwein wears his brilliance quietly, literally not speaking until almost an hour into the show. In intimate scene with his newly-found much younger local girl muse Nina (Emily Burton), he is appropriately both intellectually pretentious and astounding in his observations of life. And together O’Leary and Klarwein play off each other with versatile volatility and passion.

As Konstantin’s uncle Sorin, Brian Lucas gives a similarly memorable performance when Act One sees a terminal illness give him back a zest for life, complete with absurd behaviour and insightful reflection on life’s little missed opportunities. And his receipt of advice from the smartarse seagull Anton represent some of the show’s comic highlights. But there is more here than just humour. Although intermission comes 90 minutes into the 150 minute show, it is well-placed to signal the transition from the first three acts of comedy to its melancholic conclusion, where subtle soundscapes add to its sombre mood and lengthy silences. Indeed, misery ensues in Act Four, most evidently through caretaker daughter Masha (Amy Ingram)’s effectively-grating cynicism and self-medication.

Even in its tragedy, this adaptation is a beautiful story of ordinary people and the challenges (or non-challenges) of their everyday lives. As Evans brings the story to contemporary realisation with help of modern language and a modern soundtrack, his writing reveals scenes full of witty dialogue, such as Irina’s sexual-innuendo-laden jealous confrontation of Boris’ intention to bring Nina back to the city with them. It is clear early on that the setting has been transformed from a 19th century Russian estate to modern Australia, mostly through the references of the “Wicked” musical-loving estate manager Ilya (Barbara Lowing) to Australian TV shows and stars, however, by mention of “Home and Away” this moves more into overwritten, tokenistic territory.

Metatheatre mentions abound in exploration of themes surrounding the conflict between nostalgia for the traditional theatre of Irina’s ilk and the innovation that her son embraces counter to her claims of it being cultural terrorism. From Streetcar’s Stanley, Isben’s Nora and Brecht’s Mother Courage to Hamlet and Chekhov himself, the show is rich with an intertextuality that makes its layers all the more luscious.

“The Seagull” is a play that literally begins and ends with a bang, well worth the effort for its remix of theatrical styles and modern maintenance of the darkness, death and despair of the original Russian script. The fact that QTC’s production comes six months after now look here’s Metro Arts take on the text is testament to exactly what makes it a classic to which each production can bring its own emphasis. The place of “The Seagull” as one of the most celebrated plays in the European dramatic cannon serves as reason enough for a visit, for a great story will always be timeless. To see this stripped back show is to see a masterclass in quality performance, which can only be an added bonus, for as Chekhov himself noted, “there is nothing new in art except talent.” And talent is something this show has in abundance.