Sometimes it seems all but impossible to see a production of one of Chekhov's major plays in English without the action having been relocated – most regularly to Ireland, as in works by Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness; most recently to Wales, in Anthony Hopkins's stage and film versions of August, né Uncle Vanya. It is difficult, however, to imagine a relocation which works as comprehensively as this Cherry Orchard, directed by Janet Suzman and adapted by her from an original South African version by Roger Martin, and presented by Birmingham Rep in a co-production with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, where it will shortly be seen.
The Ranevskys, the symbol of the waning Tsarist gentry, become the Rademeyers, liberal Afrikaners whose place is likewise growing obsolete in the post-apartheid Free State where their house and estate stand; Lopakhin, the prosperous peasant farmer, is reincarnated as black entrepreneur Lebaka, who plans to build timeshare holiday homes where the orchard now stands; Trofimov the tutor is now Thekiso, the "eternal student" and ANC activist, with the result that his relationship with younger daughter Anna is cross-racial. Most daringly and 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, one presumes, one of the estate workers.
Once these changes are accepted, the play proceeds as finely as it ever has. The familiar Chekhovian tale of the twilight of a well-intentioned but ultimately uncomprehending social order is given immediate relevance in the light of present-day transitional South Africa; personal relationships acquire an additional edge of poignancy for being painted in more directly understandable terms; the differences between Thekiso and Lebaka as to the way forward for the country become palpably political rather than historico-philosophical. The language of the play bubbles vitally as phrases of Afrikaans and Sotho are fired off amid the English dialogue, and it is once again possible to play the last act convincingly as equal parts elegy and all-change bustle.
Estelle Kohler's Madam Lulu Rademeyer is sentimental yet articulate, and Jack Klaff as her brother Leo Guyver is a mini-whirlwind in the form of a middle-aged duffer. Burt Caesar puts his resonant voice to good use as Lebaka, especially in his third-act speech as the new owner of the estate, which threatens only for an instant or two to veer from straightforward triumph into revanchism; he is well matched by the passionate commitment, both political and personal, of Fana Mokoena as Thekiso. All but three of Suzman's company are South African, and one feels almost physically the powerful determination of director and cast alike to do full justice both to Chekhov's play and the cusp of the South African future which it now luminously portrays.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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