Blessed with arresting looks, a mercurial talent and a voice to die for, Jamaican-born Zahra Newman next hits our stages as Varya in Simon Stone’s upcoming The Cherry Orchard: After Chekhov, for MTC. Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum caught up with Zahra during a break in rehearsals to talk Chekhov, Stone, and storytelling.
How are you finding rehearsals at the moment?
It’s really good. It’s really fun. It’s weird, its been a kind of very relaxed, intensive rehearsal. It doesn’t feel like high pressure or rigid.
Everyone’s approaching the work with a sense of ease?
Yeah. Somehow the room… of course, with these things there are always a lot of different factors involved, with how a room comes together, the people, the piece, and all that sort of stuff. But it’s really relaxed and open, and very free. Also the way that we’re building it, as the actors we have quite a bit of ownership over the world as well. It’s not necessarily just Simon Stone’s vision, just because of the way that we’ve been rehearsing it. It helps us to really embed in it, in the world.
Can you describe a bit of the process for us, in terms of how Simon is approaching The Cherry Orchard? Has he prepared a translation of his own?
Yes. So he wrote a script version, and we read that on the first day with everyone, then on the second day we got up and started playing, but with no script. So a loose improvisation around the scenes that he’d written. It’s about what is built from the action that comes out on the rehearsal floor. And that’s great, because we don’t necessarily then throw away the script – we still have that script he wrote – but we’re going from the floor back to the table, to the floor, back to the table. It’s never been about learning his lines and then saying his lines in the space.
He’s given you a skeleton for you all to construct the flesh of the piece around.
Yeah. And we’re getting to a place now where we can lock down some rhythms or some specific lines, like “we need to have that” – but at this stage we can still improvise around a line.
How closely has Simon kept to the beats of the original?
Fairly close. Structurally he certainly hasn’t changed it, it’s still in four acts, and the four acts are related to the seasons, which is as the original. He hasn’t added a new scene or anything like that – he hasn’t necessarily restructured it in the way of The Wild Duck (an earlier adaption by Stone for Belvoir & Malthouse Theatres).
Simon Stone has attracted criticism in the past for his tendency to reinterpret existing works, but isn’t that a staple of storytelling, a tradition of theatre?
It’s a story. And we’re just trying to put a really great story out there for people to be a part of and to witness and join in on. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re trying to do. That’s the most important thing. It’s about storytelling.
It’s a great cast – besides yourself, there’s Pamela Rabe, Robert Menzies…
It’s really great. Everyone’s very open. Because for some people, in the cast, they may not have worked in this particular way before, certainly in a commercial theatre context, but everyone has adapted and gone with it. It’s wonderful to have a spectrum of actors in a space. It’s really lovely having lots of actors and to be in a cast that’s big. This is twelve actors, and it’s so unusual to have that these days.
It must be nice to have an opportunity to return to that classic, large ensemble type of theatre, the many facets and approaches available to observe and work with.
In working in this way, we’re all in the room, all day, everyone on the floor. It helps create that feeling necessary for a lot of Chekhov, but especially this story. It’s about family, or a group of people connected to this estate and this house and to this woman Ranyevskya. It helps create that community of people who are around each other a lot.
It’s important. In terms of how Simon likes to build a cast, my feeling is that that sense of community is really important, and everyone on a personal level being comfortable and being able to associate and work well with each other is vitally important, as well as an essential part of making the piece.
Tell us a bit about Varya.
Varya is… I was a bit scared about playing it. Maybe in the versions that I’d seen before, or in reading, she presented as a very difficult character to access, sometimes. She comes across as a bit harsh, or a bit mean and stroppy, and then there’s this weird love thing between her and Lopakhin, and that relationship that never quite gets fulfilled. She’s sort of not seen and not appreciated – like when someone feels that they have to fill a role, and in doing it, it in some ways turns people against them.
Does her enigmatic quality make her a more rewarding or more difficult character to invest in? What have you discovered?
Varya alone is… I still don’t know what’s necessarily going to make it into the final thing. But when you see any character when they feel they’re not being watch, or they don’t feel they have to fulfill the role that everybody else has put them into… you see the complete opposite, then you see the antithesis of that person, you see the paradox of them, and there’s been an opportunity for that in this version, which has been helpful and important in accessing and understanding Varya
Traditionally she’s been something of a conservative character, quite religious-minded, and that what makes her relationship with Lopahkin so interesting.
The stuff about religion and her being a nun is not heavily involved in this production. It’s more about – I think this is what’s important to Simon about making it something we can relate to – is what is that actually about, when someone says they want to be a nun?
Is it, I want to go to a quiet place, or I want to escape, or want to be somewhere where I can just exist – what is the basest form of that statement?
I think you could still say she’s kind of a conservative character, but conservative only in relation to the madness of the other characters. Again, that’s about needing routine and wanting things to function and to be a certain way.
With what we’re doing at the moment, there’s a few little surprises in there I think that will be very… sort of different.
The Cherry Orchard
by Simon Stone, after Anton Chekhov
10 August–25 September
MTC Southbank Theatre, The Sumner