Out on a new limb;Set play;Theatre

1st October 1999 at 01:00
THE CHERRY ORCHARD. By Anton Chekhov. York Theatre Royal.

Sonia Fraser, director of a new production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at York Theatre Royal, believes there is a deep sadness mixed with the laughter in the play.

Fraser is directing a new adaptation by John Mortimer. She feels that other versions have either been too stuffy or too English but Mortimer's has vigour and vitality, is direct and very funny without ever striving for laughter - the humour comes naturally.

"In old-fashioned versions, one character, Yepikhodov, is called 'two-and-twenty misfortunes'," chuckles Fraser. "And John just calls him 'the disaster area'. He has made it so clear and accessible and poetic. I think this will be The Cherry Orchard as it has not been seen before."

Chekhov's play is set on Madame Ranevskaya's crumbling Russian estate at the beginning of the century. There is little money and the estate's cherry orchard is to be chopped down for summer villas.

"Lopakhin has the idea," says Fraser. "He is the son of a serf and he represents the new generation. He is, I think, a nice version of Nic Leeson. He understands money.

"He has often, over the years, been played as if he was Robert Maxwell - a big and rather boorish businessman. But he is not nasty. The scheme to clear the trees is perfectly practical.

"Lopakhin is attempting to help Madame Ranevskaya. He has right on his side and what he says is accurate, but they don't ever listen. The play constantly teeters between tragedy and farce."

Madame Ranevskaya and her brother, Gaev, are charming and delightful people, but they are foolish with money and they cannot adjust to the new world. Gaev cannot comprehend why one of his serfs has left him.

"Gaev has to go and work in a bank", says Fraser. "But I don't think he'll last three minutes. Madame Ranevskaya, I expect, would spend the money her aunt gives her, and she probably ends up like those emigre Russians that you used to see up Finchley Road, drinking coffee and eating cream buns".

The humanity and compassion in Chekhov's writing ensure that nobody is a villain and audiences can empathise with everybody.

English Chekhov productions have sometimes been cream-coloured, and filled with listless melancholy. But Fraser insists that his characters are extravagant, passionate souls.

"The Cherry Orchard is incredibly relevant, in a way that it hasn't been for about thirty years," enthuses Fraser. "Young people will respond to it because the divide between generations is much clearer. Young people are more like Lopakhin.

"They want to make some money and buy a cherry orchard that they can cut down, build on, let to summer visitors and then have a decent life. Idealism and all the old values have gone."

Fraser adores the ending of the play: everyone is leaving, the cherry orchard has been cut down and an old retainer comes shuffling on. He is a symbol of the old ways, a serf who does not want his freedom, and he has been forgotten.

Kevin Berry

York Theatre Royal, October 8-30 Tickets: 01904 623568

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