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10th July 1998 at 01:00
CHERRY ORCHARD By Anton Chekhov. Method and Madness.

Director Mike Alfreds has himself translated Chekhov's 1904 story about a family forced to face reality and the sale of their fine old orchard.

Played in Russian accents, his production keeps to that language's rhythms and structures, which don't include "a" or "the". This adds force, says Alfreds: "When a character says, 'I'm leaving house,' he bounces on to the word with no warning. Russian temperament is different from English; more volatile, moving quickly from heights to terrible depression. Emotions are expressed. Men can weep unashamedly; there's none of the English belief that it's boring to impose your feelings on others."

Alfreds believes that Cherry Orchard operates on three levels: the psychological; the social, in which the family's head, the magnetic yet feckless Lyuba, represents Russia, the old servant Firs is pre-emancipation Russia, Gayev the liberal 1880s, and Lopakhin the capitalist and Trofimov the socialist are the future; and the poetic, philosophical level, concerning the purpose of life and the difficult necessity of change, where old values keep their attraction but have become irrelevant.

For all its rich character detail, the play resembles Chekhov's early vaudeville pieces, such as The Bear and The Proposal, as much as its naturalistic predecessors The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters.

"It's lighter in texture, characters pop on and off stage in sketches and have their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. There are a lot of nicknames," says Alfreds. Partly this reflects the Russian landscape - huge spaces where in the winter people might rarely meet anyone outside their own circle, a condition that encourages brooding.

"People behave as in a Feydeau farce, and there's a lot of comic business. " says Alfreds. "Lyuba scatters money, drops her fan, handkerchief, purse, telegrams. She kisses people and furniture. Gayev plays mock-billiards, sucks sweets and says 'whom' whenever rattled, is told to keep quiet, says he will then speaks, is called an old woman. Varya keeps saying 'If only God would help,' cries a lot, is angry offstage with servants.

"Lopakhin says 'I'm a peasant,' bleats like a sheep, identifies himself with a pig. Yepikhodov - the name means 'someone who walks around' - sighs, drops, breaks things and carries a revolver to commit suicide yet keeps saying 'I smile; I laugh even'. The servants have a tendency to pretentious speech. "

Alfreds adds: "As in farce, things get dropped, people are ruled by their repeated gestures and mannerisms. Cherry Orchard's content is deeply serious but the mode in which it's presented is comic. These characters say things are all right, like clowns dancing on the edge of a precipice."

Alfreds's mining of characters' contradictions confirms the play's ironic, comic-tragic view of life. Adults behave childishly; Anya, the youngest character, is in some ways the most mature. No wonder the action opens and closes in a nursery. Firs is in his second childhood, yet behaves as Gayev's nanny. Varya also behaves like a nanny yet has her childish moods; Lopakhin is a kind of "business nanny" yet jokes and teases Varya. Charlotta is an androgynous joker yet she's the family's governess. And Lyuba herself is both "mother and head of the family yet an irresponsible, passionate mistress".

* Timothy Ramsden

Tours to: Cheltenham Everyman September 9-12, Cambridge Arts September 15-19. Further dates 19992000

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