Steve Mouzakis, who starred most recently in the film version of Maurice Sendak's picture book Where The Wild Things Are, returns to the Melbourne stage after a long stint working overseas. He plays nouveau riche property developer Lopakhin in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard.
Hi Steve, have you done much Chekhov before?
I've seen a bit, but I haven't done a Chekhov play since second year of drama school. That was in 1997, just around the corner from where we're rehearsing now in fact, at the VCA. It was a scene from Three Sisters.
Fashions for writers come and go, but Chekhov seems indestructible. What is it about Chekhov that audiences respond to?
We're all asking ourselves that right now, studying the play, peeling away the layers, and the conclusion that I'm coming to is that he is just incredibly modern. It was certainly modern for its time and had a very immediate resonance with Russian audiences at the turn of the century. Thematically it's about change and revolution and a way of life on the verge of destruction. That is very applicable to the contemporary situation.
What about theatre makers? What's your attraction to the play?
It's very character driven. Everyone has something to do. It's not heavy on plot, so it's a real gift for actors. There are lots of eccentric characters, and they can seem weird, but in discovering why, the little motivations, you unlock the humour and the power of the play.
And it's a comedy. You have to unlock the comedy. You have to know why it's funny. I've seen versions that get very heavy. I don't think you can labour it like that. There's so much life in the characters ‑ they can be on the verge between laughing and crying.
The director, Simon Stone, is best known for his free adaptations of the classics. What is the rehearsal process like?
He's doing something that I've never seen done before. He's not trying to add things that aren't there, but this is a story where the characters are here and now, in a very raw and immediate way. It's very stripped back and bare and real. I've done films like that before, but I've never done a play like this before.
Your character, Lopakhin, is embarrassed about coming from peasant stock, despite being immensely rich. How can we imagine a 'peasant' in the here and now?
It's a question of social class. I'm the son of migrants. That's my experience. And compared to the aristocracy in this play, I would be working class. So I do know how that feels, to be a little be removed. And I think that creates great tension. He wants to be a part of that other world, badly. But there's always a part of him that knows he'll never be accepted.
One of the central themes of the play is an unwillingness to let go of the past. Personally, are you sympathetic with Ranyevskaia's nostalgia? Or are very much about progress and development?
I studied engineering at uni ‑ in fact I wanted to study architecture ‑ and I'm a huge fan of modern architecture. I appreciate the great buildings of the past, but I'm not nostalgic. I recognise that some buildings and places mean something special and we have to be careful about what we tear down. But sometimes it's best to move on. I remember when they got rid of the gas and fuel towers on Flinders street. I don't think anybody will miss them.
Is Lopakhin the villain of the piece?
I don't think that Chekhov wrote any villains. He's the instrument of change. You know, he believes in progress and change and a new world. And he does try to help the family. "There's so much you could do ... just listen to me ... I can help you ..." But they don't take any of that on board.
What is your feeling for the story? It doesn't end well, but is it a story of hopelessness?
No it's not hopelessness. It's like in that last act, which is quite short, it doesn't end with a bang. They all just go off and start living their lives. The worst thing that could possibly happen has happened: they lose the family home. But they go on. How that is going to translate to Melbourne, 2013, will be interesting, because there is a sense, I think, that we're on the brink of something.