At home in mother Russia

An elegant tale of playing Chekhov to the natives.
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The Independent Culture
You're a leading RSC actress switching between high comedy in Moliere's The Learned Ladiesand Webster's blood-curdling Jacobean tragedy The White Devil. What do you do on your nights off? Nip down the road and perform your own one-woman show, of course.

Caroline Blakiston is not just juggling dates. Her portrayal of Charlotta Ivanova in The Cherry Orchardinvolved her juggling balls in the air. Dropping one during a performance would probably necessitate an ad-lib. Not so easy when the performances were in Russian. In 1990, Blakiston made history as the first British actor to perform Chekhov in Russia in Russian, and Black Bread and Cucumber is the story of her experience.

Lynn Redgrave recently regaled theatre-goers with her story of her life in Shakespeare for My Therapist, sorry, Father, an evening which split audiences into those who lapped up her soul-baring and those who thought they might die of toe-curling embarrassment. I'm afraid I was in the latter group. Translating artistic and emotional experience into watchable theatre is a trick all too seldom pulled off.

On the face of it, the pains and pleasures of performing Chekhov in the town where he was born, in the red, white and gold theatre where he spent his youth, looks like a masterclass in actory self-indulgence. Blakiston, however, lends an admirable astringency to both the telling and the tale.

There's a marvellously simple take-it-or-leave-it quality about her performance which draws you in. I was reminded of Hillary Clinton going on to American TV to defend her husband over a charge of womanising. "It's a private matter," she declared. "If you don't like it, you don't have to vote for him." Shocking and strikingly successful. There's nothing shocking in Blakiston's elegant account, but her eye for detail and her skill in conjuring the mood and atmosphere of working in another climate and culture is wonderfully evocative.

She works as a miniaturist, holding the audience in the palm of her hand, wittily sketching in rehearsal clashes or her horror at being accompanied everywhere at all times, dovetailing thoughts and impressions of the play and the people she met with neat observations about the culture and politics. She was, after all, the first foreigner to step on that stage in over one hundred years in a country she describes as undergoing "a nervous breakdown". One of the actors tells her she comes from a country that values culture, whereas Russia is a nation full of people only interested in money and vodka. England, she retorts, "is full of scornful, insular arseholes with no interest in anything except money and scandal".

Just before her final performance, the actor playing Simeon Pishchik died. Her description of the funeral is infinitely touching. Amongst a company that had worked together for years she felt, she says, "completely at home". This isn't gush. At one point she told herself, "Don't let me go back to England and generalise the Russians." She needn't worry.

In rep at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1. Booking: 0171-287 2875