Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sam Mendes & the Transatlantic Style

Why did Sam Mendes choose The Cherry Orchard to debut his transatlantic theater company? Maybe I'm being too literal-minded, but I think he should've contrasted Shakespeare with an American playwright. The mission of “The Bridge Project” (a title that lacks poetry and wit) was born out of Mendes wish “for artists, collaborators, and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to experience one another's work, talent, and artistry…”

So why program a Russian drama – it's neutral ground?
That doesn't seem likely. For one thing, Mendes partners the greatest Russian dramatist with the greatest English one, running The Cherry Orchard in repertory with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. For another, this Cherry Orchard has British candences, care of adaptor Tom Stoppard. Also, the project was inspired by Mendes' double-bill of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night at BAM back in '02; his program note admits that he's trying to recreate that experience. And probably Mendes picked The Cherry Orchard just because he wanted to direct it.

Okay, the two shows are well-matched. Both are plays of life's middle age, in which an aging generation hopes that their failures can be repaired by the vivacity of the one that's coming of age.* They've got several substantial roles for a sizable company of British thesps and American actors. But you could argue the same about Angels in America, which echoes The Winter's Tale by bringing a statue to life (Central Park's Bethesda Fountain).

I love the idea of “The Bridge Project,” which is why I'm so frustrated. London, New York, and LA have cross-pollinated performers to such an extent that there's not much difference between American and British styles of acting. It would be great to have a high-profile, high-calibre company that explores the ramifications of a hybrid style together for a season or three. American actors, directors, writers, designers working with their British counterparts to discover an Atlantic Style. That's what Mendes claims he wants to do. But he's really just created a company of actors that'll put on whatever work he wants to direct.

* I'll note here that Mendes Cherry Orchard fails on many levels, one of which is casting 48-year-old Simon Russell Beale as the youngish hustler Trofimov. Together they give him a crush on Ranevskaya (60-year-old Sinead Cusack), against the script, where he shyly adores Varya (25-year-old Rebecca Hall).


nelsonnyc said...

Everybody has an idea of what a Chekhov production MUST be, compared to which all others are wrong. That's a mark of how dearly we care about Chekhov. But what's the point of giving all the actor's ages, as if they were proof of misconceived direction? Chekhov doesn't say anywhere that Lopakhin is young, or that he's attracted to Varya (only that everybody assumes they're getting married). Simon Russell Beale's interpretation of Lopakhin makes beautiful sense to me-- he's been worshiping Ranevskaya since age 15, when he was the hated son of a serf and she was the slightly older, perfumed and treasured daughter of the master. No matter how rich he's become since then, he'll never feel classy enough to deserve that kind of beauty. That explains why he's driven to save the family, and when he's ignored, driven to destroy them. AND it explains why he can't bring himself to propose to the adopted Varya, who may be the better match for him, but represents the commonness he has run from. I must also say that whatever age you found for her on imdb, anybody could be forgiven a serious crush Sinead Cusack.

Your idea of pairing a British and an American play sounds great, but it might be lethal when you got down to casting and accents. Did you ever see Olivier's attempt at "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"?

I haven't read where Mendes says he's trying to develop a "Trans-Atlantic" style of acting, which sounds kind of general, and in any case, unattainable in a brief rehearsal process. What he HAS said is that he wants to see "artists and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic experience one another's work, talent and artistry." Nobody else has achieved that simple goal of bringing British and American artists together in a company, to influence and challenge each other and their audiences around the world. Mendes' "Winter's Tale" in particular makes clever and exhilarating use of the culture gap. Give the guy credit for making a start.

Hotspur said...

Thanks, Nelson, I was blind to an unconventional reading. You're right, Chekhov doesn't mention Lopakhin's age (at least, not in any translation I have handy). But I wasn't open to it because I didn't buy so much else in Mendes' approach to Orchard. I found it listless & even cliched - all that gloomy staring out over the audience seemed almost a parody of Chekhov.

As for the transatlantic collaboration, a lot of my thoughts were inspired by interviews supplied with my press packet! Check out a NYTimes article from 12/28/08, & a WSJ article from 1/9/09. Mendes isn't trying to develop a new style of acting, but he is trying to create a transatlantic company (which is probably what I should've titled this post).

Mendes' impulse to foster collaboration betw. British & US artists is sound in itself. But if I take this production of The Cherry Orchard as an example of what he wants to do, I think it's a good idea poorly served. One thrill of running shows in rep is to see how the plays, playwrights, & cultures collide. By programming a Russian drama, Mendes misses a grand opportunity to explore onstage what it means to be an Anglo-American company.