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Waiting for the axe to fall

THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Anton Chekhov. Salisbury Playhouse.

Jonathan Church describes The Cherry Orchard, which he directs (in Michael Frayn's translation) at Salisbury Playhouse, as "a moving, witty Russian play. Nothing is quite black and white; there's humour at surprising moments. " And the humour opens up character. The clumsy Yepihodov is sympathetic as well as, in the colloquial sense, pathetic. "It's as if he's back at school being bullied by people around him. And this treatment makes him even more unsure of himself and clumsier."

Act three offers several of these mood mixes; the moving argument between Ranayevskaya (played by Celia Bannerman) and Trofimov ends comically as he runs off. The news of the cherry orchard's sale is first heard as a casual wisp of rumour amid dancing.

For all his talk, Trofimov, the perpetual student, is "not a social hero. He's as guilty of inaction as the Gayev family. And he can't even pass his exams. " Though Trofimov and Lopakhin stand politically opposed, Lopakhin agrees with some of the student's ideas, if not his ways of doing things. "Both have been beggars at the feast, sucked into Ranayevskaya's world and loving her for giving them access there."

However hopeless she is in shaping her life, audiences need to understand Ranayevskaya's magnetism. She has thrown away her family connections by a declasse marriage, then eloping with a con man, yet has gathered a substitute family around her. This life-wasting character must also seem life-enhancing. "She must be attractive and generous with money as with herself because she wants people to love her."

Yet the affection Ranayevskaya attracts can be paralysing. Gayev can be seen as another victim of the emotional paralysis his sister radiates. "Compassionate, unmarried, no children, and it's she who owns the estate." Yet next door is Semyon-Pischik, no less incapable, but finding financial salvation. Luck is a lottery that misses out on the Gayevs.

Runs until November 3, then in rep November 11-29. Tel: 01722 320333

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