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Tiago Rodrigues directs Isabelle Huppert in The Cherry Garden at the Holland Festival: 'From Chekhov, the best friend of all actors in the world, we play every note.'

'For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to play all the notes written by Chekhov. It was an intellectual and artistic challenge to really work with Chekhov. I could really let Chekhov be one of the authors of the play, which is very unusual for me. After all, I'm used to adapting and rewriting plays.'

Speaking is Tiago Rodrigues (not the footballer), a Portuguese director who is somewhat well known in our region from previous Holland Festival editions and collaborations with theatre companies Dood Paard and Stan. In this year's Holland Festival, he will direct world star Isabelle Huppert in Le Cérisaie, a French version of Chekhov's renowned play The Cherry Garden.

Own texts

The piece previously premiered as the main act of the Festival d'Avignon and received rave reviews. Remarkable in usually rather conservative France, especially since Rodrigues has built a reputation as an uncompromising arranger of pieces.

In 2019, for example, he left no stone unturned in William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra". You can read all about it in an interview with Fransien van der Putt on this site: 'I have no problem at all if spectators want to see Anthony and Cleopatra. But for me, it's about something else.' Tiago Rodrigues writes theatre for dancers.

That 2019 performance was wonderful, but will have surprised lovers of classical theatre. Those did not see Shakespeare, but an intimate piece between two dancers/actors with their own texts. Such 'own' theatre is peculiar to Rodrigues' work, but this time at the Holland Festival, Chekhov's The Cherry Garden can be seen in its entirety. This is a striking change of direction, which could have a lot to do with the lead actress: Isabelle Huppert. This star actress, known for countless film roles, such as La Pianiste, and whose busy life she herself made fun of in the hilarious comedy series Dix Pourcent, can make demands, it turns out.

With Chekhov at the table

Rodrigues, who likes to work with his actors on concepts together, tells it nicely: 'At a certain point, I was having dinner with Isabelle Huppert, and it seemed that Chekhov was sitting at our table. Then we decided to work together as three: you will play Lyubov, I will direct and Chekhov will write. Chekhov finished first, because he had already done it 100 years ago.'

His dinner companions were persuasive: "For the first time in my career I felt the need not to work 'based on Chekhov', to change him, but to be subservient. Not to THE author, because I don't like that, but to be subservient to THIS author: Anton Chekhov, who chose to work with me. I started to study him, read many of his texts, including his letters about this play. In one of them he tells how sad he was that Stanislavski [the famous founder of naturalistic acting, WS] had made the play so slow and so sad.'

20 minutes

'In my mind, I then wrote a letter to Chekhov telling him not to worry, that I was going to make a super-fast version and that I would make sure that the last act would be no longer than 20 minutes, just the way he wanted it. Not necessarily better than what Stanislavski had done, but certainly faster.'

'So I wanted to record it for Chekhov, just as I work for the actors. I wanted them to meet each other. Like I do with friends: I bring you and a few other people together because I think you have something to offer each other. I cook a dinner at home and make sure the situation is optimal for your meeting.'

All characters

And so a Chekhov was created with a complete, unadapted and unedited text. Or rather, a text closer to the original than has been seen before. Because tinkering with Chekhov was something that happened as early as the first performance, Rodrigues knows: 'This way, I could make the play with all the characters in it. And thanks to the research work of the translators, André Markowicz and Françoise Morvan, I chose to take the primal version of the play, especially the 2nd act, and not the version that Stanislavsky asked Chekhov to do. The difference between the two versions is that in the primal version there is much more room for the own stories of supporting characters like Charlotta, Yasha, Yepichodov: they all have their own story in that second act.'

'You don't normally see this version. Most performances start from the Stanislavski version. Stanislavsky actually wanted those characters out, because he didn't think their texts were important. He wanted a more rounded story, which is what Chekhov made. But so now we are doing the original.'


And that in turn leads to interesting discussions, it turns out: 'People now accuse me of having made an edit when I promised not to, but that is so not true. On the contrary, I bring a more complete version. This one is much nicer for the smaller roles.'

And then sounds something akin to the story of someone who is completely converted from intervening in stage texts: 'It's like with music. When a pianist wants to play the complete Goldberg Variations, it's a great challenge, but you also know that Bach wrote every note with a purpose. So you have to play everything. I find the same with this Chekhov.'

Although he does not want to speak of a complete conversion: 'It's not that I'm going to do that for all the performances I do from now on, it's not a dogma. But with Chekhov's Cherry Garden, which, as we all know, is the best friend of all actors in the world, we play every note.'

Did you learn much from that? Earlier, you did a version of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which used nothing more of the original text. Do you get more respect for writers now?

'I don't know. I am in the happy position of being able to choose what my next work is going to be and what I want to learn a bit more about. I normally write my own pieces. I am always amazed that people take a Büchner or Goethe, a piece that is hundreds of years old, and imagine that a new performance can be made from something that has been played so many times. The only thing I have to offer is that I write it myself, and so am sure no one has done it before me.'

'I have sometimes toyed with the idea of directing an entire play, but never saw the point. Until I got talking to Isabelle Huppert and she made me see the importance of it. She knows so much about it, she knows so much about it, that during that dinner with Isabelle I brought up that old idea again. It's a real learning experience for me.'


The casting is also special: the actors are cast in all skin colours. You could speak of 'colour-blind casting'. Yet that doesn't quite ring true. Above all, the actor who plays Lopachin, the character of the businessman who has risen from a serf family, and who at the end buys the estate to turn it into a resort, is a black actor. This makes his reference to his past as an enslaved person extra charged against the very white Lyubov. 

'That slavery aspect was not a main purpose of choosing this cast. It is present anyway. When bodies today interact with the right text, they will naturally ask the right questions of the audience. It will also make the audience think about the right things.'

'That's why we still direct plays without changing anything about the text. After all, today's bodies are asking today's questions. The cast is not only colour-blind, but also age-blind, nationality-blind, and we also do gender-blind casts. It's just not blindness, but an open eye to who we are and what the theatre offers in terms of possibilities. So it is possible for Isabelle Huppert, who is French, to play a Russian woman while speaking French. We can also do that in Amsterdam. These are all possibilities.'

No one is just black or white

'That is the same freedom that allows the possibility of someone born in Senegal playing Lopachin, who is a Russian. It would be possible to have Trofimov played by a woman. It doesn't happen, but it is possible. We talked about that. That you don't have to be limited by the physical characteristics of actors, that's what I call freedom. I asked Adama Diop to play Lopachin because I thought he was the best actor for the role.'

'I am a big fan of the Lopachin character. It always makes me angry when I see that role being portrayed as a neoliberal, opportunistic businessman. Of course he is opportunistic, but in a Chekhov way. Nobody is just black or white, good or bad, the bad guy or the hero. Chekhov is so layered that you can hate or applaud a character within two sentences, or within a single scene.'


'For the role of Gajev, I thought Alex Descas was the best choice. He is also black, but born in France. Gajev is the old owner of the cherry garden. In the third act, Lopachin, who was born a slave, from a father who was a slave, a grandfather who was a slave, buys the estate that Gajev cannot save. Of course you think about history, about our colonial past, whether in France, the Netherlands or Portugal. Of course you think about Europe today, and it's all possible because Adama Diop is a body that gives us that possibility.'

'At the same time, the old owner is a black actor, born in Paris. So there is also no dramaturgical reason why one should be black and the other not. Just as the role of Anya, Lyubov's daughter, is played by a black actress. When it is then said 'You are exactly your mother at that age', while that mother is played by Isabelle Huppert, who is very white, you see freedom, you see imagination in the audience. It's the same imagination you need to imagine that this theatre is actually a Russian estate.'

Theatre is Imagination

'Sometimes people worry about an old man playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, but why couldn't an old man play Romeo? I could play Romeo, even though I am 45 and heavier built than Romeo. But I know what it is to be a teenager in love, so I can play Romeo, and even add things to it that no teenager could think of. I may not be the perfect Romeo, but I add something to it. I am also not Italian, but Portuguese. Nor was the first Romeo in London 400 years ago an Italian teenager.'

'That's what theatre all has to offer. It allows you to see a lot of politics from the skin colour of the actors, at certain times, because they shine a new light on Chekhov's words, but that is not the main reason, The main reason is that it is possible to be free on stage.'

Lopachin is violent when he bought the estate. Was that a conscious decision?

There is a tradition of performing certain scenes in this play, which has little to do with the play anymore, but more to do with directing it. I find it hugely violent, what Lopachin says and goes through. He suddenly gets power, he breaks something, and nobody punishes him, he can be arrogant. Normally we hold that back a bit and that's because we don't like Lopachin.'

'In my version, Lopachin is very sympathetic, we like him. He really wants to help. He may be a businessman, but he is bold, and almost American in his optimism. When he suddenly turns to violence, we are surprised, just as when we are surprised that people who have been humiliated for decades suddenly turn violent. But of course, this is not sudden at all. They have played the game for centuries, and at some point they don't take it anymore. I have no moral judgement on that.'


'So we talked about it, with the actors. I wanted the scene to be transgressive, so that he could return in the fourth act, as someone who has found his place in society. He returns as a winner, having been humiliated throughout the play, and silently accepting that, His opinion did not matter. And when he buys the estate, he shows his strength. In the fourth act, he hands out champagne.'

During the tour, war broke out because Russia invaded Ukraine. What did that do to you, to this play? After all, the play is set in Ukraine?

'It works through. We cannot ignore the fact that this fictional cherry garden was conceived by Chekhov in a very real place. And that place is Ukraine, where the war is now. At the end, they take the train to Kharkov.'

'Chekhov wrote about a world in change in an area where this unacceptable war is now being waged. We want to show as much solidarity as we can, not only with Ukrainian artists, but also with Russian artists, who are taking enormous risks by speaking out against Putin, or who are now unable, because of the threat, to speak out.'

Not 100 per cent moralistic

'As citizens, but also as artists, we must continue to speak out against this crime. We must also continue to think. We must not let this war take away our ability to think, we must be able to continue thinking about the complexity of things, as Chekhov did. We must not become 100 per cent moralistic about everything.'

'The crime of war must be condemned, but we must keep thinking, because that is what we are fighting for. We should not become totalitarian in our thinking about what this war means, and how our society should be organised. As we play this play, we become aware of everything else that is possible in this area. In 1903, it was the land of beauty and nostalgia for Chekhov, but also the land that had a huge future, despite all the atrocities that took place there throughout the 20th century, especially in World War II.'

'We know this piece is not about that, but it resonates. It echoes when we name cities, it also echoes in the magnificent presence of Russian literature and culture in our lives. He is very important that we continue to think, and fight for freedom of thought.'


'Chekhov belongs to me and you, and not to Vladimir Putin. Even the Russian language belongs more to you and me, than to Vladimir Putin. Or at least that language belongs more to Osip Mandelstamm or all those other poets who were persecuted and tortured in their own countries by their own regimes.'

'When I think of Russian culture, I think of Chekhov, and not the state. So sanctions are necessary to take a stand as human beings against crime, but let us not let art be taken away from us. Let us not read less Chekhov and less Dostoevsky, because then we will lose our humanity.'

Good to know Good to know
La Cérisaie (The Cherry Garden) with Isabelle Huppert can be seen at the Holland Festival on 10, 11 and 12 June. Information via this link.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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