Strain beneath the surface style … Ellen Thomas as Anita in The Hotel Cerise by Bonnie Greer. Photographs: Stephen Cummiskey
Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard casts a long shadow. I’ve seen countless plays about bereft British aristos pining over their lost property. Bonnie Greer, however, goes a step further by transposing the action to a Michigan resort hotel, owned by a once-rich, upper-class black family, on the eve of the presidential election. The result is ingenious but seems torn between distilling the Chekhovian poetry and charting the panic prompted by a possible Trump victory.
Greer preserves the structure of Chekhov’s play and finds contemporary equivalents for its characters. Anita is a stylish grandee who cherishes her old house as much for the fact that Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald stayed there as for its cherry orchard. Her brother, Augustus, is a thrice-divorced playboy and round-the-world yachtsman, while her two daughters, Lorraine and Chirlane, seek to break free from their dominant mother. But, as in the original, the crumbling estate is up for grabs: the difference is that this time the entrepreneurial Karim has plans for it to be bought by a consortium who want to exploit the Cerise brand.
Greer successfully charts the internal dynamics of a divided family: the elders, conscious of their status, cling to a romanticised past, while the young are fiercely radical. In one of the best scenes, Anita also hints at the strain on a black elite of preserving a facade of superiority when she says “we scream every second and they think it’s singing”.
But what is latent in Chekhov – the sense of a society on the threshold of momentous change – becomes blatant in Greer. The most obvious example is the way the original’s symbolic use of the sound of a breaking string here becomes an earth-tremor that throws everyone flat on the ground.
Greer has, in fact, grafted a modern political play on to a classic source. Toussaint, the equivalent of Chekhov’s wandering student, is a potential revolutionary, working on a book about Obama called Alas, Poor Barack. A local businessman is fine-tuning his assault rifle, in case Trump gets elected. A young servant is forcibly reminded of his debt to his impoverished background, when news comes of another black victim of police violence. All this gives us sufficient insight into the multiple political perspectives of black America to make me wish Greer had written a wholly original play.
The production by Femi Elufowoju Jr, with a beautiful art deco set by Ellen Cairns, does however capture the Chekhovian sense of a group composed of warring egos. Ellen Thomas as Anita eloquently conveys the strain behind the surface style, while Alexis Rodney as Toussaint gleams with self-righteous certainty and there is strong support from Angela Wynter as a fiercely independent maid and Abhin Galeya as the monastically business-oriented Karim. Michael Bertenshaw, as an expatriate English hangover from the hotel’s glory days, also fits dapperly into the picture. It’s a ferociously clever rewrite but I wanted more Greer, less Chekhov.