Set play

28th April 2000 at 01:00
The Cherry Orchard. By Anton Chekhov. English Touring Theatre

First put on in Moscow on January 17, 1904, The Cherry Orchard is, in the words of the English Touring Theatre's director Stephen Unwin,"the millennium play".

It has "a sense of an old world coming to an end and a new one arising. It's the first great play of the 20th century and the greatest play of that century," he says.

The rich Madame Ranevskaya returns from Paris to her Russian estate, which is hopelessly in debt. Although Lopakhin, a self-made businessman whose father was a serf, suggests raising money by selling off the cherry orchard for redevelopment into holiday homes, Ranevskaya rejects this idea and in the end loses the whole property.

For this version, some of the time-honoured cliches of Chekhov productions have been abandoned. Usually, the cast is dressed in white (perhaps as an echo of the colour of cherry blossom), but, says Unwin: "We're going to do it in period costume but in colourful clothes."

Although Unwin admits that The Cherry Orchard is "a play with a huge heart and daunting complexity", his aim is to "restore some of Chekhov's lightness of touch".

After all, Chekhov's text - here given a crisp new trans-lation by Stephen Mulrine - jumps rapidly from exalted speeches to low comedy. "This mix of vulgarity and exquisite lyricism makes it so hard to get the pace right," says Unwin.

Casting Prunella Scales, one of the country's leadingcomic actresses, as Ranevskaya is a reminder of "Chekhov's insistence that the play was a comedy". But, he adds, "it's a comedy with real people".

What you have to remember about Ranevskaya is that she is both "daft and wonderful", he says. Although she's at a crisis in her life, "there's no point in romanticising her". She is "emotionally volatile, always demanding, but also completely at a loss in practical matters".

In her third-act speech to the "eternal student" Trofimov, her grief about losing her childhood home is "aristocratic and comic, but it is also human and touching".

Unwin tries to imagine what would have happened to each character after the revolution of 1917: "Lopakhin is the first to get shot - he's a kulak after all. Trofimov is a mystical Bolshevik who doesn't survive the first purges. But servants such as Dunyasha probably lived on until the Second World War."

Never forget, says Unwin, the "class-based nature of society at the time", and remember that Chekhov was "himself of Lopakhin-like stock. he was very 'earthed': he knew the brothels of Moscow."

Armed with a translation that is "quick and serious, accurate and speakable", Unwin aims to fuse all sides of Chekhov's versatile play - "the magic party trick and the dancing, the vulgarity and the poetry, the trashiness and the truth" - into a clear and coherent whole.

Aleks Sierz The Cherry Orchard tours until July 1. Information: 020 7323 2355

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