Sunday, 10 July 2011

Review of The Cherry Orchard at The National Theatre

I mentioned before that I had booked a touch tour and audio description for a performance of The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov.  This has been playing at the National Theatre (NT) - .  So, with all the booking arrangements made, I went to the NT on my own via Waterloo Station. 

I was pleasantly surprised that all the staff at the NT, including the cafe and Information Desk, were aware that the touch tour for 12:30 on Saturday 9th July assembled at the second floor box office of the Olivier Theatre.  I was escorted to a cafe then the box office and met William who gave me the earphones for the audio description.  The earphones are based on an infra-red system which only works in a specific theatre within the NT complex.  I had visions of being in The Cherry Orchard listening to something else, such as a News of the World hack!  William pre-set the channel and explained that 15 minutes before the performance the audio description would outline the play.

Having been kitted out, the group assembled and we went back stage on to the set of The Cherry Orchard itself.  Ros, who is Head of the Access Department at the NT, gathered us in a semi-circle and then introduced us to Kenneth Cranham.  I recognised the voice instantly -it’s sort of gravelly and you can hear him on the John le Carre Smiley series from the BBC.  He plays Inspector Mendel.  Kenneth talked about the play and was joined by Zoe Wanamaker and other actors.  We discussed aspects of the roles within the play and the construction of the play itself, with comments on the background to Russia in 1904 and the general decline of landed estates, the coming of the railway, communications such as telephone and telegraph and electric light.

We then met the stage management and the wardrobe department and I was shown some of the incredible detail such as wallpaper, photographs, books, and a bookcase which is central to some of the action.  It was interesting to note that the NT makes some of its furniture and this bookcase had been ‘distressed’.  I could feel the candle wax on the surface and go inside some of the bureau compartments.  One of the stage management showed me the 'Russian' newspaper peeling from a rear wall which could only have been noticed by a few in the auditorium!  I was also told that the matchboxes were authentic as was the paper money.  The significance of the telegraph post was useful as a landmark which my peripheral vision could pick up.  Some of the costumes were also available to inspect and we then met the transcribers: Ros, Bridget and Neville (I think).  They explained how they interacted with the action on the play and as they had to do this on a live basis, it couldn’t always be scripted. 

The tour lasts about half an hour and there is about an hour before the performance so it’s possible to get a snack or rejoin your friends, if you’re sitting in the auditorium with others.  There is no need to sit in a designated area as the infrared earphones work in the auditorium.  I was assured that the earphones do not interfere with other peoples’ enjoyment of the play, so I didn’t notice a mass exit of the audience around me.  I was escorted to my seat and got a programme which I will have to ask someone to read, but wanted as souvenir.  The NT has large print cast lists and a version in Braille is available.  Information can of course be found on the NT website. 

I’m not going to go into much detail of the play itself, but only to say this was Chekhov’s last play before he died and it reflects the usual issues of the interaction between family, class, money and developers.  These themes haven’t changed over a hundred years, so the play is still topical.  When chatting with the audience, I was able to remark that the describers indicated the name of every new character and used a variety of names by which each character is known in the play, for example: Mark Bonnar plays a character who is referred to by a first name and a patronym, so this is a possible double confusion which the describers neatly avoid, though Mark’s Scottish accent is genuine (I heard an American remark how wonderfully his Scottish lilt had been rendered in the play ... in much the same way as Scottish accents are used in some of the Aristophanes comedies whenever a Spartan is playing). 

I found I could take the earphones off as you can hear the theatre audio line directly.  As the play begins, I had a 45 degree audio line, which opened up to about 80 degrees when the set on the Olivier was fully opened.  The play starts very much in the form of a Greek tragedy, with a scena and a door and this is transformed into an open stage during the first part of the play.  As we had passed through the backstage area, we had been aware of the props and these were described as they were used in the play itself at key moments when the dialogue would not be so helpful.  Having the headset under my own control meant that I could take it off and on and I usually put it on when there was a music cue or a lighting change, which I can detect. Without giving away the ending of the play, I would say that the final 10 minutes should be used in conjunction with the earphones.  I find I can be a pest when asking ‘What happened?” at the end, but it’s not always obvious and unlike the Seagull, there is no additional sound effect. 

A very big thank you to the NT Access Department for both the touch tour and the audio described performance.  This certainly makes going to the theatre on one's own viable, but also socially enjoyable.  You don't have to ask friends to read the programme notes and can concentrate on the bar instead!