FringeReview UK 2016
Bonnie Greer’s Hotel Cerise premieres at Theatre Royal Stratford East directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr and designed by Ellen Carns with striking costumes by Jessica Curtis.
Bonnie Greer’s Hotel Cerise premieres at Theatre Royal Stratford East directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, fittingly designed by Ellen Carns in 1970s art-deco guignol with striking costumes by Jessica Curtis. Hotel Cerise riffs off Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. It’s a wondrously witty, tender take on the original with twists and veerings-off that never threaten the essential premise.
Covering April-November 2016, the familiar plot-lines of the original manifest in Grand Dame Anita Mountjoy (to give her her shorter name) who’s dragged back from Paris her two daughters and left a love-affair. But Hotel Cerise, refuge of the black elite, intelligentsia and heritage industry in waiting, needs to be sold to pay off debt. Is the place where Martin Luther King found refuge relevant in the dying days of Obama’s presidency and the troubling of Trump’s possible ascension? And should it be?
Freighted with this is the encroachment of other black voices, what’s referred to as African incursions, in a defiantly comic nod to the ironies of immigration on earlier immigrants, as well as a riff on Black Lives Matter. It’s clear Anita’s son might have been drowned by white boys.
There are similar Chekhovian moments Greer wrenches beautifully to a black American twist. Not only do we get reports of police shooting a black boy, but the rifts between men as Corey Montague-Sholay’s’s nattily truculent TK (the uppish servant of the original) upbraids ex-tutor Toussaint (nervous, but resolute Alexi Rodney) who’s veered to black power. TK was a Marine and Toussaint’s trampling on the flag opens more fissures. Toussaint is itself an improbable nom de guerre, named after Toussaint L’Ouverture the successful challenger to new French imperialism, not often mentioned in European history. His never-completed book Alas Poor Barak (it sounded like Yorick on the night) says everything about an incomplete civil rights revolution.
The ballet of family, their friends and retainers adheres relatively closely to the Chekhov original which Greer commends for Chekhov’s virtues of facing death with humour and delicacy. Ellen Thomas fills the central role with warmth, quixotic generosity, occasional faded grandeurs and a bewitching illusion. Her great tragic scena towards the end is marked like Stations of the Cross, freighted with histories. If it seems a little indulgent, a pause, it’s shadowing the Chekhov original and authentically varying the pitch. Greer here has given Anita her full weight. She carries more tragic reasons than the Russian ruling class. Her great line ‘we scream every second and they think it’s singing’ also referencing Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald (who stayed there) stands as eloquently as anything in Chekhov.
Michael Bertenshaw’s English Fielding – as Firs, the old enfranchised serf from Chekhov – provides some dotty relief in consummate distracted turns. Clearly suffering the first twitches of dementia and forgetting (he keeps thinking former opera diva Lena Horne is arriving), Fielding, the pop band boy adopted in the 1960s inverts the racial stereotyping and delivers sharp reminders to younger family members of their own heedlessness. Anita’s thrice-married yacht-escaping brother Augustus Leon (Nicholas Beveney) is told he has none of his father’s dress-sense. Meekly he agrees.
Abhin Galeya’s Karim, servant now millionaire, potentially an equivocal rescuer of the property, works with a branding tyro who intends to turn it into a themed heritage site. His relationship is now with oldest daughter Lorraine (finely subdued Claire Prempeh) and what Greer has managed is to suggest subtly how co-dependence has worked on the daughters, even to Anita’s protests. So although we’re expecting an almost-proposal it’s beautifully twisted through closely modelling the characters involved and an outfall of different reactions; the one who goes down on his knees is Andrew Dennis’ exuberant Cornell Baxter who then mischievously pulls out something else altogether for Anita.
But the greatest coup is that haunted moment in the original Cherry Orchard when a strange sound emanates. Here it’s a full blown violent tremor, hurling everyone to the ground. In that moment, the tramp of Chekhov’s original appears but only to Anita, where everyone else stays time-frozen. It’s as if the fissured earth has released a spirit woman (Angela Wynter, also spirited servant Jackie) from the nineteenth century who merely begs water and is amazed to find herself here in Mountjoy property. This marries two Chekhovian epiphanies in a resonant renewal of meaning, and of the relevance of the white-money basis of the family.
Despite Greer’s sounding plangent notes, the play enjoys in other ways a far more consolatory feel. Differences seem reconciled, to an extent not seen in Chekhov. There’s less mutual exploitation too. TK isn’t the nascent monster of his original for instance. But Greer has otherwise ingeniously captured the Chekhovian amplitude and capacity for delicacy and tenderness in the face of death, her paean to Chekhov. That’s really something. Suitably updated in its local 2016 events, this should take on a life elsewhere.