Issue 24 (2009)

Sergei Ovcharov: The Garden (Sad, 2008)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2009

ovcharovSergei Ovcharov’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (Vishnevyi sad, 1904) can be viewed as a “playwright’s cut.” Every production of Chekhov’s classic has to take into account the debate over its meaning that erupted after its premiere in January 1904. Chekhov famously viewed his work as a farce while Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Director of the Moscow Art Theater, declared it was a drama. When The Cherry Orchard debuted at the theater, it did so under Stanislavsky’s direction. After reading the work, he wrote to Chekhov: “This is not a comedy, nor a farce as you have written, this is a tragedy, whatever escape toward a better life you open up in the last act.  … I wept like a woman, I wanted to control myself but I couldn’t (qtd. in Loehlin 4).”  Stanislavsky staged the play accordingly.  When he heard about it, Chekhov was incensed, firing back: “What Nemirovich [the co-director] and Stanislavsky see in my play definitely isn’t what I wrote and I’m ready to swear by anything you like that neither of them has read through my play carefully even once (Ibid).” The battle lines were drawn.  Subsequent stagings would have to take one side or the other. Most sided with Stanislavsky.

Ovcharov sides with Chekhov, and his film faithfully follows the playwright’s instructions that The Cherry Orchard is a farce. At the same time, Ovcharov attempts to marry the silly with the serious side of the play, fusing the feuding interpretations that have dominated the work’s performances. To prepare for his production, Ovcharov read Chekhov’s unfinished works and his notebooks, paying particular attention to the playwright’s beliefs about the farcical nature of his last play. For the film director, “the ridiculous and the tragic are always next to each other, and in Chekhov’s work dramatic clashes are interwoven with humorous ones, so you cannot separate them (qtd. in Mazurova).” 

gardenTo enhance the period feel of the film, Ovcharov inserted intertitles, encouraged his actors to perform as if in a silent film, and had the music played on a phonograph, complete with scratchy sounds. The Garden in many ways attempts to recreate an alternate, cinematic premiere of The Cherry Orchard. Ovcharov even had the film made at Lenfilm Pavilion Number 4, the legendary site of St. Petersburg’s first movie house and where the first film in Russia screened.  The Ranevskii manor house constructed on the set looked the part, as did the artificial cherry orchard built next to it. To inspire the actors, the orchard was sprayed with cherry scent, all in an attempt to replicate Chekhov’s era onscreen.

gardenThe Garden is ultimately interesting for how this vision might have looked like.  The plot does not stray far from the play, focusing on the Ranevskii family’s impending foreclosure on their family estate. Despite the warnings from the former serf-turned-businessman, Lopakhin (played by Roman Ageev), the family persists in the belief that their ancestral property will be saved.  Instead, they focus their attentions on their various love affairs.  In the end, Lopakhin buys the land at an auction, marveling that he now owns the estate where his father and grandfather were enserfed. The businessman plans to cut down its famous cherry orchard to make room for the construction of summer dachas that will bring profit from tourists.  As the film ends, the Ranevskii family departs, with Liubov’ Andreevna (Anna Astrakhantseva-Vartan’ian) lamenting that the cherry trees being felled marks the end of “my beautiful garden, my life, my youth, and my happiness.” The family falls apart: Liubov’ Andreevna returns to Paris, her daughter Ania starts a new life with the radical student Trofimov, her adopted daughter Varia becomes a housekeeper, and her brother Gaev takes a job in a bank. The 87-year-old servant Firs (Igor’ Iasulovich), who has been with the family since the days of serfdom, remarks that everyone is a “nincompoop [nedotepa].”

For Stanislavsky, this plot represented the passing of an era.  The old aristocratic Russia, where estates represented a rural arcadia for the wealthy, had finally died out to be replaced by Lopakhin’s capitalist world.  This transition, in Stanislavsky’s eyes, made The Cherry Orchard into “an obituary for the nineteenth century” (qtd. in Loehlin 2). In the original staging, Stanislavsky played Gaev, helping to ensure that the Raevskiis were viewed sympathetically (Chekhov wanted Stanislavsky to play Lopakhin).  After the Revolutions of 1917, Vsevolod Meierkhol’d attempted to restore what he saw as the abstract vision of Chekhov’s play, while subsequent Soviet productions often cast Trofimov as the hero. Ovcharov ridicules all of these characters and characterizations, making Firs his hero instead. The old servant opens and closes the film, and his consistent refrain that everyone involved with the estate is a “nincompoop” serves as a means to judge the Ranevskiis and Lopakhin alike.

gardenOvcharov defended his decision to take Chekhov’s side on personal and historical grounds. Both he and the playwright, he has made clear, “are raznochintsy”(literally a “person of a different rank,” or a non-noble and non-peasant in 19th Century conceptions).  Stanislavsky, by contrast, was an aristocrat and “saw only a tragedy for the Ranevskiis” for they represented “his own tragedy.” According to Ovcharov, Chekhov’s rage over the play stemmed from his roots as a raznochinets. The Ranevskiis deserve to be ridiculed, Ovcharov opines, because their unhappiness pales in comparison to the plight of Russia’s poor that Chekhov observed.  The real message of The Cherry Orchard, at least for non-aristocrats, is the need to gain perspective and to love everyone as God intended, not to feel sorry for people who cannot grasp reality (“Interv’iu …”).

According to Ovcharov, history is also on Chekhov’s side.  After the play’s debut, Russia experienced “real” upheavals that made the Ranevskiis’ plight truly seem ridiculous.  “We waged civil war, we allowed the world war to happen.  All our churches were bombed out, all our museums were torn down, we continually cut down this same garden (Ibid).” After ruining the country over the course of the century, Ovcharov claims, Russian society has once more produced Ranevskiis and Lopakhins. Once again they need to be made fun of and their concerns placed into proper perspective. Ovcharov has stated that the farcical version helps to combat “boorishness, money grubbing, egocentrism, and savagery” (qtd. in Burmistrova).

These interesting ideas aside, Sad left many Russian critics and viewers unconvinced. Valerii Kichin commented in his review that Ovcharov’s Chekhovian version “confirmed the truth that geniuses do not always adequately appreciate what they created.”  In making the film as a farce it became less Chekhovian, for “he [the playwright] did not know how to write the play in a sufficiently ridiculous manner (Kichin).” After it debuted on the First Channel’s “Zakrytyi pokaz” (Closed Screening) series in December 2008, viewer comments ran the gamut, branding the adaptation “shameful,” “uninteresting,” and “very interesting.” Ovcharov’s film, while fascinating to look at, ultimately demonstrates that Stanislavsky was right.  As an experiment in what the play might have looked like had Chekhov had his way, the film is irritatingly interesting.  As a farce, however, The Garden is not very funny.  

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Burmistrova, Iuliia.  “Sergei Ovcharov: ‘Chekov ... Da pochti opera …’”  Vzgliad 30 June 2008:  .
Interv’iu s rezhisserom-postanovshchikom Sergeem Ovcharovym”:  .  

Kichin, Valerii.  “Chert poshel koromyslom:  Fil’mom ‘Sad’ Sergei Ovcharov postavil tochku v spore Chekhova so Stanislavskim.”  Rossiiskaia gazeta 25 June 2008:  .  

Loehlin, James. Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Mazurova, Svetlana. “Vremia Chekhova: Sergei Ovcharov snimaet ‘Vishnevyi sad’.”  Rossiskaia gazeta 11 August 2007.


The Garden, Russia, 2008
Color, 96 minutes
Director:  Sergei Ovcharov
Screenplay: Sergei Ovcharov, based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard
Cinematography:  Ivan Bagaev
Artistic Design:  Dmitrii Malich-Kon’kov
Costumes:  Larisa Konnikova
Music:  Andrei Sigle
Cast:  Anna Astrakhantseva-Vartan’ian, Dmitrii Podnozov, Roman Ageev, Igor’ Iasulovich, Svetlana Shchedrina, Oksana Skachkova, Andrei Fes’kov, Ol’ga Onishchenko, Evgenii Baranov, Evgenii Filatov, Natal’ia Tarynicheva, Boris Dragilev
Producer:  Andrei Sigle
Executive Producer:  Dmitrii Gerbachevskii
Production:  Proline Film

Sergei Ovcharov: The Garden (Sad, 2008)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09