A play that’s as Japanese as . . . cherry pie

by Nobuko Tanaka

Following “The Seagull,” “The Sneeze,” “Three Sisters” and “Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard” is the final play in a series titled “Chekhov: The Work of the Soul” staged by the New National Theatre, Tokyo.

The Russian dramatist and short-story author Anton Pavlovich Chekhov started writing at 16, to pay his way through medical school in Moscow after his father went bankrupt. He died of tuberculosis at age 44, seven months after “The Cherry Orchard,” his last play, premiered in Moscow in 1904. This is his best-known and most popular work in Japan. Consequently, the auditorium was packed, mainly with middle-aged and elderly people dutifully absorbed in reading the program before the curtain rose, to glean what they could about the play and the life of its remarkable creator.

Director Tamiya Kuriyama, who is also artistic director of the New National Theatre, set the play in Meiji 44 (1911) in the Shinshu area of Nagano Prefecture, where — then, as now — many of Japan’s most noble and wealthy maintain second homes. The tale is of Ranevskaya (the character is renamed Urarako Kayano here and played by Mitsuko Mori), who has returned to her estate, The Cherry Orchard, after a five-year sojourn in France, oblivious to both her own imminent bankruptcy and the firmament of the times. Kuriyama explained that he chose a Japanese setting so audiences could more easily understand its complex social dynamics and to demonstrate Chekhov’s “eternal meanings.”

In so doing, the director is in tune with the current trend in Japan for staging Chekhov, since the playwright has long been the emblem of shingeki, the Western-influenced drama that flourished in the late Meiji Era (in contrast to traditional forms such as kabuki, noh and shinpageki). It is only relatively recently, however, that non-period productions of his works have been in vogue.

Convinced of Chekov’s “timelessness,” Kuriyama says in his program notes that he believes modern audiences will easily identify with the kind of confusions and problems encountered by the characters. In particular, he points to the same type of people in today’s Japan, namely those with no sense of changing realities, like Ranevskaya/Kayano, and naive idealists like university student Trofimov (called Tomohiko Yatabe here, and played by Yasunori Danta), with his ideas of freedom and overthrowing the old order. This, Kuriyama maintains, makes Chekhov’s works as relevant here and now as when they were written, in Czarist Russia at a time of epic change.

So here we have a story of fading Russian aristocracy shifted to one about Japanese aristocrats in almost the same period. On the one hand we have the dawn of revolution in Russia; on the other, the cultural and social flux of the late Meiji Era.

The only problem is that the correlation doesn’t hold up, instead it simply highlights the fundamental discord at the core of this production. This is because the play’s original setting was just before the failed 1905 Revolution in Russia, a harbinger of 1917′s Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. In Japan, whatever changes in consciousness may have come about with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, they were nothing compared to the effects of Russia’s violent, populist overthrow of an ancien regime. To suggest anything else, as this new interpretation of “The Cherry Orchard” seems bent on trying to do, is to create fiction.

Not only that, but in shifting the story’s time and place, the original plot’s immediacy, the characters’ subtleties and the play’s considerable humor are all diluted. In sticking faithfully to the original lines, Kuriyama draws from his cast performances akin to those of honor students at acting school, while the over-earnest attention to every detail of the late Meiji Era stage setting means too much time is spent changing scenes and the flow of the play is impaired.

As a result, this production ends up being quite flat, and rather than exploring new levels of Japanese significance, it is almost devoid of relevance — shingeki with no life.

What I and surely many others had hoped for was a more defiant production from the New National Theatre, which should realize that Japan’s theatergoers are more educated and are possessed of more advanced understanding than they are given credit for here.