Taking liberties with Chekhov

Who (did you say) wrote that play?

Upton with Blanchett: Tinkering with perfection.
Upton with Blanchett: Tinkering with perfection.

I recently saw a lovely production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at the Royal National Theatre in London. The cast is excellent, the period set/lighting/costumes are handsome, the direction is skilled and detailed. It's an altogether absorbing, satisfying theatre experience.

Just one problem: Who wrote the play? Not Chekhov, that's for sure.

According to the program, this Cherry Orchard is a "version" by Andrew Upton, the co-artistic director (along with his wife, the actress Cate Blanchett) of the Sydney Theatre Company in Australia. As a director, Upton has concentrated on the classics, but he has also written original plays and screenplays, as well as having adapted classics for the stage.

But why would the National Theatre choose a "version" of The Cherry Orchard"“ rather than a faithful translation"“ for its current production? And what is meant by a "version," anyway?

As one who has translated all of Chekhov's plays from the Russian, I sat through the three-hour performance, listened and, to my surprise heard what was in essence a free, liberal paraphrasing of Chekhov's text, including numerous lines that Chekhov never wrote (or would have been capable of writing).

"'You're retarded!'

Some of Upton's lines disturb the delicacy and subtlety of Chekhov's original text, making its meaning overtly explicit, such as: "We don't want the past all at once," or "They owned and exploited people," or "This house is my childish [pause]— my childhood."

In other cases, Upton's lines are anachronistically modern for a play written in 1903, like "subdividing the cherry orchard." Some lines contain jarring colloquialisms, like "OK" or "Hang on!" or "You're retarded!" or "Boy, are you pushing it, girlie!" or "Bozo!" or even "shyster." Lines like "I'd rather die proud than tired" and "a conversational gambit" sound more Wildean or Shavian than Chekhovian.

My notebook from that evening is filled with pages and pages of similar examples.

The "'no harm' argument

According to Sebastian Born, the National's literary manager, the theater chose Upton's already existing version because the play's director, Howard Davies, had worked with Upton on several previous productions, including Upton's recent and successful stage adaptation of Bulgakov's novel, The White Guard. As Born explains, Davies liked the contemporary quality of Upton's dialogue and his attempt to "anchor Chekhov's poetic sensibility in a more concrete mode."

"When a play is as well-known and as frequently done as this one," Born adds, "it seems to me that there is no harm in taking a particular approach for particular purposes."

No harm done, of course. That is, assuming your audience has seen the play already and is familiar with it. Yes, Upton's "version" tells the story. But at the same time it robs us of the essential beauty of the play "“ the playwright's own words, and his words alone.

If Stoppard can do it….

Granted, "versions" of Chekhov's four great plays are now fashionable. The National Theatre bookshop's shelves are filled with versions that are "inspired by," "suggested by" or "free interpretations of" Chekhov's masterpieces.

Theaters today argue that by producing adaptations by established writers like Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Brian Friel, and Alan Ayckbourn in Britain and David Mamet, Lanford Wilson and Richard Nelson in the U.S. (all of whom, typically, hire Russian speakers to do literal translations and then adapt from there), they are bringing new life to Chekhov's plays, as well as calling attention to them. Even Tennessee Williams has done a "version" of The Seagull.

I may be in the minority, but I thought a writer as elegant and profound as Chekhov needed neither revitalization, nor reinterpretation, nor cachet.

Updating Monet?

Here's my question: Is there such a thing as "artistic responsibility" or "artistic ethics" when we produce the classics (as righteous or pretentious as that might sound)? After all, we don't hang a "version" of Monet"“ we hang the original, though we might reframe it, or set it in a modern museum. We don't rewrite classical music. (Well, maybe we do, but only if we're Brahms, and we're doing a Variation on a Theme by Haydn"“ and in that instance, it's still Haydn's melody that we hear.)

And if we do adapt Chekhov beyond recognition, shouldn't we follow the example of those who take responsibility for having written an original play or screenplay, and at the same time give credit where credit is due for inspiration? Andre Gregory did it, with his film The Last Summer at the Hamptons (inspired by Chekhov's The Seagull). Emily Mann did it when she wrote her play A Seagull in the Hamptons. Woody Allen did it, when he wrote and directed the film September, inspired by Uncle Vanya.

At the end of the day, when it comes to Chekhov's plays, the last thing we want to do is deprive the audience of the clarity, poetry and music of the original. A case can be made for producing a simple, straightforward translation that's faithful to the author's seminal work"“ as a number of Russian-speaking translators in Britain and America have done in the past few decades.

That way, whether you like it or not, at least you know you're getting Chekhov.

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