THE FREE STATE
Bath Theatre Royal/touring
Opened 8 March, 2000

Janet Suzman's luminous South African version of The Cherry Orchard, first seen at Birmingham Rep in 1997, is now revived in a touring production with a new title and a subtitle proclaiming that it is a "response" to Chekhov's play. No, it isn't; it's an adaptation, pure and simple. It is, though, a particularly fine and enlightening one.

The Ranevskys, the symbol of the waning Tsarist gentry, become the Rademeyers, liberal Afrikaners whose place is likewise growing obsolete in the transitional Rainbow Nation of 1994; Lopakhin, the prosperous peasant farmer, is now black entrepreneur Lebaka, who suggests to Mme Rademeyer that she build timeshare holiday homes where the orchard now stands; Trofimov the tutor is now Thekiso, the "eternal student" and political activist who has studied in Moscow consequently, his relationship with younger daughter Anna is cross-racial. Most fruitfully, this version makes explicit the theory that adopted daughter Varya is the illegitimate child of the late Ranevsky; here, Maria is the coloured offspring of Rademeyer and, presumably, one of the estate workers; when the estate's "walking disaster" Khokoloho (formerly Yepikhodov) wants to insult Maria, it is her race that he refers to.

Jeffery Kissoon's "Leko" Lebaka is a tad on the expansive side: when he gives his Act Three account of how he came to buy the orchard, he grows from near-immobile murmuring to yelling and tribal dancing in his triumph. It is also more than possible that the real reason he never quite manages to propose to Maria is that his heart belongs to her mother. Suzman not only adapts and (with Martin L. Platt) co-directs, but now takes the central female role herself, in a performance which does justice both to Lulu Rademeyer's slightly florid preciousness and naivete in the face of worldly matters, and also to her central decency. She and Lebaka, in their strategies for facing others, are two of a kind.

The relocation of the play allows Chekhov's set-piece historical-philosophical discussions to reacquire a concrete political edge. The disagreement between Lebaka and Thekiso is on the present, palpable grounds of which approach is more necessary to help the emerging South Africa; indeed, I failed to notice first time around that, by the time he has bought the orchard, Leko's plans are no longer for a holiday development but a township "Now my people can rest," he declares, "the land is back where it has to be." Even in the elegiac final act in which the Rademeyer house is emptied for the last time, the underlying mood is not one of mourning for the passing of an old era, but a resolve to accommodate the new nation's progress.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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