Thursday 15 August 2019

Wild Cherries - Theatre Review

What: Wild Cherries
When: 14 - 25 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Daniel Keene
Directed by: Beng Oh
Performed by: Lucy Ansell, Molly Broadstock, Milijana Cancar, Dennis Coard, Carmelina di Guglielmo, Kim Ho, Troy Larkin and Enzo Nazario
Set and costume by: Emily Collett
Lighting by: Shane Grant
Sound by: Ben Keene
Stage managed by: Teri Steer
Molly Broadstock and Milijana Cancar- photo by Sarah Walker
Riffing off the work of Chekhov, La Mama presents a new play by Daniel Keene (writer) to the stage. Wild Cherries shifts the lens of The Cherry Orchard and examines the plight of labour slaves rather than the ruling elite.

Beginning as short pieces about modern slavery written for Sydney Theatre Company for a project which was never realised, Daniel Keene crafted the idea into a mirror play for The Cherry Orchard. Whilst Daniel Keene and director Oh say in the program notes Wild Cherries is looking at modern slavery, the construction and style have an old world feel and remind me most strongly of writers such as Steinbeck and perhaps Williams, and the costumes (Collett) also take us into a kind of Great Depression aesthetic.

Wild Cherries tells the story of 8 cherry pickers. They are itinerant labourers paid little and fed even less. They are people at the bottom of the heap and who are about to fall even further as the employer plans to separate the men from the women and ship them off to unknown places to do even more menial work in worse conditions.

Probably because of its genesis, Wild Cherries is written in a very monologic style which makes it tricky to maintain dramatic action and Oh appears to have really played into that by having most of the text spoken on a rostra downstage right.  It was an intriguing choice if a bit confusing. The Courthouse has a lovely sized stage and cordoning it off and mostly only using one spot seems like a strange choice.

I also wonder at directors who seem to have forgotten centre stage is the most powerful spot for performers. I keep seeing tables and other furniture put there, and in this case it is just completely ignored and unused. I would love to say it was reinforcing some point in the play but I don't think that is true. It really does seem to just be an affectation and one which is uncomfortable for the audience who have to sit for just over an hour and half with their neck craned in an unusual direction.

In this review I shall ignore the 3 ladders. It is the kindest thing I can do and appears to be what the cast do for most of the show beyond the first 5 minutes anyway.

In an interview with Cameron Woodhead, Daniel Keene spoke about constructing this play as an attempt at creating a "beautiful object" and "a piece of poetic writing". I did wonder if Oh's insistence on everything happening on a plinth was an attempt at referencing a living sculpture rather than a play as such - perhaps something in the vain of Gustav Vigeland?

If so, it does begin to work in the blocking but the stage placement and Collett's design don't really reinforce that idea.  Having said that, without the fruit tree netting structuresin the set - which are so impressive upon entering the space - Grant would have had very little to light and there would have been no way to bring the play to a climax visually.

Daniel Keene's homage to Chekhov is strong and consistent in the structure even to the final moments of Fir(The Cherry Orchard) and Afina (Wild Cherries) . The monologues are heavy and Wild Cherries is dense with despair and hopelessness. Having said that, like the Russian, Daniel Keene's writing is alway filled with humour and it is as much a mistake to play to the pathos with him as it was when Stanilavski did it to Chekhov.

Despite his protestations otherwise in the Woodhead interview, Oh has unfortunately fallen into that trap. The actors lean heavily into their emotional repertoire, layering everything with anger and sorrow which is emphasised by Ben Keene's (quite amazing) sound design.

Performances are strong (although all the different - and not consistent - accents had me confused), and luckily a couple of the actors found ways to shift out of the doldrums to bring life and hope and humour to the show. In particular, Ansell (Elena) and Nazario (Anton) gave emotional dynamism which allowed us respite from the gloom which, in turn, helped emphasise the horror of the circumstances. Larkin (Emil) also portrayed a wonderfully layered performance.

Some aspects of the story are problematic for me. The women are written from a very male perspective and the wedding - whilst necessary for some kind of group survival celebration - was a mystery. As the granddaughter of a woman who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp with toddlers I can attest to the fact that women are not as much the victims of fate and passive in the face of oppression as Daniel Keene has written, but for a man this isn't such a bad set of portrayals.

Wild Cherries is the beautiful object Daniel Keene was desiring to create and Oh has, for the most part not gotten in the way of that. It is longer than it needs to be. Perhaps the one major criticism is the pace. Every scene seems to move at the same pace. It is difficult to manage this because of the monologic structure, but this is the kind of circumstance where the director's skill can become evident. Daniel Keene gives all of the verbal hints in the script needed to understand the climactic conclusion, now Oh and the cast just have to craft the momentum of the work to get us there.

Wild Cherries is a dip into an older style of theatrical story telling. It is languid in a way we don't see a lot of any more. It perhaps doesn't make it's point about modern slavery very clear but it is still wonderful writing and the echoes of Chekhov resonate deeply.

3.5 Stars


  1. Story was compelling.

    Staging was comfortable for a small selection of audience which should not happen in such a small theatre. The main action was too far to left and im confused as too why it was not central. A serious lack of staging.

    Lucy Ansell seemed to not fully grasp the position Elena was in and appeared way too happy. (clearly a direction issue).

    No "non smoking signs" nor policing of smokers in the foyer line was very disappointing, also substandard heating as we were not allowed to be seated upon arrival.

    $10 would of been a more appropriate price.

    2 stars at best.

  2. I agree with your comments on the staging. The issues about smoking and heating are venue issues so don't go into reviews generally. I also suspect you are not a regular at La Mama because those things are all part of the 'ambience' you get used to as a regular.

    I liked Ansell's interpretation. It gave me a reprieve from all of the over-emoting the rest of the cast were doing and allowed me to actually hear her story. If she played the scenes as morbidly as just about everyone else did I would want to slit my wrists and it doesn't do justice to Keene's writing.

    Technically speaking it is all direction issues - the inside stuff I mean. :)

  3. HI Samsara, glad I found your review, I reviewed the show for Theatre People (was tempted to title my review 'An Evening of Emoting upon a Block") and was a bit gobsmacked that many reviews lauded it and seemed to ignore clear flaws in Oh's direction (in my view). For what its worth I also had some concerns that the text itself underdeveloped character and context; Keene seems a more concerned about writing poetically, rather than dramatically. Anyway, was just happy to see this as confirmed I was not entirely mad.

  4. Hi Kit, I notice your review is no longer online but I do remember reading it and, like you, being relieved someone else saw the same play I did. We are sometimes a bit overly focused on dramatic action to the detriment of poetics in our theatre these days, but it is possible to go too far the other way as - perhaps - happened in My Dearworthy Darling. Having said that, every play will find its audience - or not... Some reviewers surprised me too, but you can usually tell when a critic is self-editing because they will talk about generalities and concepts rather than specifics about the show. Our job as a critic is to respond to the work we see within the bounds of our own knowledge and experience and stay true to our beliefs and ethics. This is the best and most important gift you can give audiences and artists alike. Keep reviewing. Your opinion matters :)


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