Susannah Flood, John Glover and Simon Godwin (Photo by Jenny Anderson)
On October 1, 2016, Simon Godwin spoke about The Cherry Orchard with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows:
Ted Sod: When I interviewed you for the Playgoers’ Guide, you said that your mother took you to see musicals when you were very young and that was probably the beginning of your love affair with theatre. Do you remember a show that you saw with her that had a profound effect on you?
Simon Godwin: I remember going to see a production of Barnum starring Michael Crawford, who at that time was a very popular British actor. He was playing the character of Barnum and I remember very well the extraordinary impression it made on me to see this man learn to walk a tightrope, which he had to do in the production. It was a demonstration of enormous skill and precision and I thought, there’s something miraculous about theatre. The strength, achievement and the expertise of Crawford made a big impression on me.
TS: In that same interview, you talk about going to Cambridge and reading English and it was there that you decided you might want to be a director.
SG: That’s right. I had actually been a child actor in England, so I was in period dramas when I was a teenager. I was very good at playing a posh twit, but that was really all I could play. I simply had no ability really to transform myself. I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life playing posh twits from England where, of course, there’s a great appetite to see them onstage and in movies. When I got to university, I realized the thing about being a director is, you get to play all the parts without really playing any of them, and so I tried that instead and I enjoyed it so much I’ve been a theatre director ever since.
TS: I believe this is not the first time you have directed Chekhov. Did I read that you directed The Seagull?
SG: A long time ago, I directed The Seagull, yes.
John Glover, Diane Lane and
Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)
TS: The more I read about Chekhov, the more I’m just amazed by his humanity. Aside from being an author, he was a doctor. Will you talk about your understanding of the man and his work after working on this play?
SG: One of the things that makes working on Chekhov very challenging is that he doesn’t really have heroes and villains. He was a very nuanced writer who was always trying to see the light and shadow in everybody. Chekhov is always saying that a person may be good and kind in one way, but in another way they are a catastrophe. I think that probably stems from his interest as a doctor in looking at human physiology and emotions. You get the sense that he thinks everybody has a wound. A sense that everybody has dirty linen, everybody has dirty secrets and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad -- it makes them complex. His endless fascination with human complexity is what I take away from working with him. It’s sometimes quite hard to know how to stage his plays, because they are very slippery. They are always one step ahead of you and every time you think you know where you are – there is another surprise or a line or an incident that makes you questions things. He’s a mercurial but endlessly fascinating writer, I think.
TS: Chekhov died about five or six months after the first production of The Cherry Orchard and, for me, there are so many allusions to the end of life in this play. He keeps reminding us how impermanent life is and that we need to embrace that.
SG: Chekhov died when he was 44. I’m 41 – he was three years older than me when he died of tuberculosis. We think of him being a very distinguished, sage-like figure, but he died young after writing only a handful of plays. Of course, he knew he had tuberculosis for a very long time and he lived with a sense of his own mortality. I think in all of his plays you can feel a frustration about what it means to end. I think he explores what ending feels like and what it feels like when you have a sense of your own ending. I think some of his characters have an appreciation for life because they know it’s going to end. When Lyubov says, “It’s like I never noticed the kind of walls we have here in the house, what kind of celings…and now I look at them so greedily, with such…love…,” I think it means that she has deciphered that she needs to live more in the present than in the past or the future. I think Chekhov’s sense of realism was very much informed by the fact that he knew he wouldn’t be here very long.
TS: You wanted a very specific American adaptation for this production. Can you talk about the choice to do that?
SG: I discovered that the theatre which originally performed the play, the Moscow Art Theatre, was originally called The Moscow Publicly Accessible Art Theatre and their mission was to do multifaceted plays about the present day. The question for me became how to marry the fact that Chekhov wrote this play in 1904 to the fact that we’re sitting here in 2016 in New York. I could’ve come armed with my Tom Stoppard version of The Cherry Orchard with a lot of English expressions in it or I could find a young American writer like Stephen Karam to do a new, colloquial adaptation. Stephen got to know the literal Russian translation that he worked from, and he saw that in the Russian translation there are a lot of ellipses, a lot of interruptions, a lot of colloquial language. Stephen has adapted the play very beautifully I think. I can’t really tell because I’m not myself an American. But I’ve certainly learned from the actors about celebrating the “speakability” of the play and that “speakability” has opened up resonances that may not always be there in other adaptations.
TS: You’ve done something very diverse with the casting and I know that some people will look at the casting and see a black person and say, “What does it mean that they’re black?” I start with the fact that they’re human and deal with the character’s humanity no matter what color the actor is. I really commend you for giving all sorts of actors an opportunity to do Chekhov.
SG: Well thank you, Ted. You’ve opened a very good subject. I think everybody in the theatre world is working out how to best celebrate the communities in which we live and how to honor those communities in the most exciting and comprehensive way. I’m based at the National Theatre and we’ve made a commitment there to say that since London has 40% diversity, all our companies on the stage should share a similar expression of diversity. I directed Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is the first time a black actor has ever been employed to play Hamlet there. I felt like it was a milestone to say Hamlet doesn’t have to be played by an actor who looks Danish. I don’t know the statistics for New York City, maybe you do, but certainly for me casting was about reflecting the fact that we are in one of the most diverse, multicultural cities in the world. It was exciting to think about The Cherry Orchard as a kind of dream. We know that Chekhov had been writing a piece before he died that took place in a boat that was stuck in ice in the Arctic. It was about two men being visited by a ghost of a woman that they both loved. So at the very end of his life, Chekhov was moving away from naturalism -- which is what we all associate him with -- into a greater, stranger, ghostlier vision of what invented stories look like. Once we step away from hard naturalism it means, of course, we can all be much more expressive and playful about the decisions we make casting actors. Diversity in casting doesn’t want to negate people’s heritage, it wants to celebrate it. Harold Perrineau plays Lopakhin and when we were rehearsing act three, Harold said, “Simon, I have a lot of movement training and I’d really like to express this moment through dance.” That was very thrilling for me. I said, “Well, Harold, I never expected it to be like that, but I’m very excited that you’re bringing some of your expertise into this drama.” So in a way, we are asking the audience not only to be color blind, but we also want them to be color conscious.
TS: So much is going on in this play that I would think, that as a director, you almost need to sit down and map it out.
SG: Well, that scene in which Harold is ultimately dancing is actually fun to talk about because in the original, Chekhov puts a wall between the party and everything that you see as an audience. It ends up in most productions being a party at the back of the stage and occasionally a character opens the door and they have a conversation and then they go back to the party. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens if you lose the wall and expand the party. That becomes a very, very big act of organization. You have lots of people, you have a band, you have to decide when the band is playing and when are they not, when characters are dancing, when are they not, what kind of dance people would be doing where they can spontaneously sit and spontaneously be involved. The movement direction for that scene did require mapping it all out.
Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane, John Glover, Chuck Cooper and Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)
TS: One of the things I thought of watching the play today is that perhaps Ranevskaya and Gaev really want this to happen. They’re just holding on to the cherry orchard because it’s part of their legacy. I found it so heartbreaking that they are trapped into doing what they think they should be doing, instead of what’s best for everyone. Do you feel that way about them or do you have a different understanding?
SG: I think that each of us sitting in this room right now have something that we wish we could let go of, but it’s just too hard to let go. I’m thinking of my smoking habit at the moment, which has caused a number of Lopakhin-esqe people to say to me, “Simon, please stop smoking. It’s killing you. It’s bad for your health. It’s not going to end well.” And part of me wants to listen and change and part of me is stuck going, “Well, that’s my habit. That’s what I do. I’m going to stay this way because it helps me.” I feel like I want to be released from smoking and yet somehow I can’t be released from smoking. So this paradox of saying, “Somebody save me from myself because I’m not going to save myself unless somebody helps me,” is very much at the heart of this play and we’ve all got versions of that paradox.
TS: Today I watched Celia Keenan-Bolger as Varya play that moment when she comes in with a big, broad smile thinking Lopakhin is about to propose and he just can’t ask her. Chekhov won’t allow it to happen. Do you understand why that is? Because in a normal play, that would happen.
SG: Yes, that’s right. I think it’s really helpful to compare Chekhov to normal plays because it explains his genius. He won’t reward us in the way we want to be rewarded and it’s really frustrating at times as a viewer because you think, I need some pleasure here, please. I need some relief. But to answer your question, Chekhov found marriage very difficult. He got married very late. He had many affairs and part of him found commitment really hard. I think there’s a little bit of Chekhov in Lopakhin, who is on one level successful and very good at business, but is frightened of love. You could say he’s in love with Lyubov. There’s this push and pull in him toward these two women: Varya, who he feels he should be with and Lyubov, who’s always been this kind of angel in his imagination. Chekhov is so resolutely unsentimental and rarely rewards audiences in traditional ways.
TS: When the first production of The Cherry Orchard was done, Chekhov had a very tenuous relationship with Stanislavski, who directed it. I read when he saw a rehearsal, he was upset because the actress playing Anya was crying too much and he said to Stanislavski, “You directed it like a tragedy. It’s a comedy with farcical overtones!” Stella Adler said in her book on Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov, that it was from that point forward that it has become the challenge of the director to figure out the tone of this piece. Can you talk to us about tone?
SG: Well, thankfully, I’m still in rehearsals. We’re still in previews, so every day I come in and I work more on the show with the company. Every day we learn more from the audience by doing it in front of you. We learn about what’s funny, what’s not funny. What’s sad and what’s not sad, what’s clear and what’s not clear. Every day we carry on, shaping and learning and growing because I think you put your finger on this, Ted, the tone is really hard. It’s by no means a rip-roaring comedy, but there is a lot of comedy in it. How do we find a way of playing the comedy fully so it doesn’t get in the way of the emotions and how we do find a way of playing the emotions so they don’t get in the way of the comedy? I think as a company we’ve really got to understand how to merge those things together, how to move from one style to another.
Diane Lane (Photo by Joan Marcus)
TS: I’m in love with some of the choices that have been made by you and the design team. First of all, you create space that is evocative, not literal. At the end of the play, the characters are dressed in modern clothes. Will you talk us through some of the ideas behind those choices?
SG: It’s a scary process taking this classical play and making decisions like, oh, maybe the costumes do get a bit modern at the end. Because, very much like Hamlet, it’s a play we all know or most people know. We’ve seen it in different incarnations and, of course, what’s fascinating about the play is that it is partly about people not wanting change. In each of us, including myself, there is a wish to keep things as they are and a wish to do things differently. I think about Sir Barry Jackson, who in 1925 staged the first modern-dress production of Hamlet and how that must’ve felt in the 1920s when audiences saw Hamlet for the very first time in modern dress. I’m sure they were horrified and, of course, ultimately it doesn’t become such a big deal anymore. With The Cherry Orchard costumes and set, I think the negotiation was the same as it was with the dancing scene. We were very much trying to figure out, how can it not be business as usual? How can we try to find a balance that isn’t the fake trees that are normally there? It relates a little bit to a phrase that Stanislavski coined during the first production of The Cherry Orchard, which was the magic “if.” What the magic “if“ meant in his terminology was, if this was happening to you, how would you react, how would you behave? What I’ve realized when I’ve done plays in very strict period costumes is that the actors say to me, “I don’t know how to act this because I wasn’t around then. I don’t know how they behaved so I’ll try to do a historical performance.” And it is difficult for me as a director, too, because I wasn’t around then either — so it’s bit of a guessing — a bit of a making up the moment, which of course is possible because it’s just having and using your imagination. In a way, by making these choices, you’re morphing into something artificial to get to something more authentic.
TS: I know you’re still wrestling with the play and you’re still in rehearsal, but has there been a light-bulb moment for you about the play?
SG: It’s a much tougher, harder, rawer play than I realized in the beginning and that’s been the learning for me. And I’m excited about those discoveries. Going further, more grief, more intensity, more outrageous behavior, more guts -- I feel the play enjoys it when we go for all of that behavior. So my light-bulb moment is that and I’m really trying to listen and to push everyone to ever greater extremes of emotion, comedy and storytelling.
Audience Member #1: The very talented and beautiful Diane Lane played years ago in The Cherry Orchard; what was her initial reaction to this production?
SG: Diane was in The Cherry Orchard when she was 12. She was in the ensemble and played the ghost of Grisha – Ranevskaya’s dead son. We don’t have a dead Grisha in our production. I don’t want to speak for Diane, but I think it’s a daunting, exhilarating challenge for her to go back to a play that she’s known so well and had such a deep experience with. Diane, of course, is an incredible collaborator. And she is a wonderfully open, generous, playful, brave performer. I think it’s been great for me to work with someone who is so available and so generous. Diane’s been wonderful at embracing the new.
TS: There’s a great interview with Diane in our online Playgoers’ Guide where she talks about being in that production as a child.
Audience Member #2: What was your intent with the mobiles? I am assuming they represent the cherry orchard?
SG: When I was contemplating coming here to do The Cherry Orchard, I was looking at both Russian art and American art and I discovered Alexander Calder, the great American mobile maker. As I got to know Calder’s work more and more, I thought about how many petals and blossoms and branches he was referencing. I thought, maybe there’s a sense of fragility in Calder’s work that could work for us. The phrase “hanging in the balance” came to mind. The fragility of the world came to mind. I said to Scott Pask, the set designer, “How might we do the images of trees and branches?” I started to show him the images of Calder and he thought the set could be informed by that.
Audience Member #3: When a set is abstract, do you make those choices because you want to set the tone for the play before it even starts?
SG: My initial inspiration was to put the people at the center of it, rather than the naturalistic detail of a house and orchards. So that was my way into it, with my mobiles and different ways of integrating and evoking things. I think there’s probably a movement now in world theatre to explore moving beyond the confines of traditional naturalism and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I am very grateful to Roundabout for letting me have a go at sharing a different approach with all of you.
John Glover, Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane and Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Audience Member #4: What was the most daunting task about taking on this production at this time — is there anything you feared?
SG: I’m a guest at Roundabout and I am learning about this community, this audience. You realize that theatre is so much about codes, so much about dialogue between all of you sitting here and the actors on the stage -- what lands, what doesn’t, what’s clear, what’s not, what’s funny, what’s not. The daunting thing is finding a transparency between the work on the stage and you in the audience. Do I think I will achieve it in the time that I have left? I think a play like The Cherry Orchard is never fully achieved. Do I think we’ll get closer to something? Yes.
TS: It’s time for us to wrap up. If I’m not mistaken, Simon, you’ll be working again in our country directing Measure for Measure. Will you tell us about what’s on the horizon, so people can follow you?
SG: I’m directing Twelfth Night next at the National Theatre, which will have a modern take in that it’s the first time that Malvolio is becoming Malvolia. And I’m going to do a play about Iraq in London and then I’m coming back to do Measure for Measure for Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. I’m really looking forward to continuing the dialogue with all of you in New York and I hope as I go on, I’ll learn more about how things work here and how I can make meaningful gestures.
The Cherry Orchard is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.
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