The Cherry Orchard *****

The Cherry Orchard is one of the most important plays of the modern era.  It isn’t only its rich characters and multi-layered plot that is of note; it also marked an historic moment when a director’s concept conflicted with a playwright’s intentions.

The story follows the financial downfall of an aristocratic family who have the habit of spending more money than they possess.  Their cherished country home, complete with a large cherry orchard, is about to be auctioned to pay off bad debts.  A local business man with ties to the family offers a way out.  The price, however, would be the loss of the loved orchard.

Anton Chekhov wrote the play as a comedy, even filling moments with high humour and speckles of farce.  Stanislavski, the inaugural production’s director, saw it as a tragedy.  Henceforth, many productions of The Cherry Orchard have suffered an identity crisis, teetering between Chekhov’s humour and Stanislavsky’s darker vision.

The Lyceum’s current production suffers no such conflict.  Writer John Byrne and director Tony Cownie clearly side with Chekhov and have created a comedy filled mostly with slapstick and shenanigans but also with the occasional snap of a harsh reality.

The production is billed as a ‘new version’, but in truth it’s more like the old version with a fresh lick of paint.  Byrne has relocated the play to the Highlands on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power and has changed the names of characters and added British references, but the events and character reactions are the same.

What is impressive is how well the decision to relocate to Scotland works.  This Cherry Orchard almost feels like a companion piece to The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, with its look at class, economic turmoil and exploitation of the Highlands.  This isn’t a production that feels like a museum piece, it is a vibrant play that is modern and relevant.

The greatest joy, however, comes from the work of the ensemble.  Every character is not only richly drawn but fully played, and there isn’t one performance that doesn’t feel three-dimensional.  From Maureen Beattie’s kind but flawed matriarch and Andy Clark’s ladder-climbing tycoon to Ralph Riach’s heartbreaking servant and Grant O’Rourke’s grace-challenged clerk, every actor has at least one moment where they shine.  It is a pleasure to see such a large cast that contains equal weight, and every performance proves to be memorable.

It’s hard to find fault with this stellar production.  From an excellent design concept, sharp direction, clever updating of a well-regarded script and a brilliant ensemble performance, The Cherry Orchard is a truly great production that is the best work from the Lyceum in some time.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Lyceum in Edinburgh until May 8, 2010.

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