Penelope Wilton to star in The Cherry Orchard

Theatre
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The Independent Culture
In the course of a damning review of Katherine Cornell's misbegotten production of The Three Sisters, Mary McCarthy encapsulated what might be termed the Chekhov dilemma. "To the American theatre mind, a play that culminates in a disastrous event is, by definition, a tragedy. If you add to this that the characters are unhappy, it is plain sailing." This is in stark contrast to Chekhov's own view. He rebuked Stanislavsky, insisting that "my plays are comedies".

So which do you trust the play or the playwright? While academic discussion (sorry, "discourse") both pre- and particularly post-modernism has been obsessed with the notion of authorial absence/presence, productions of Chekhov have changed irrevocably in the last 20 years. Gone is the gloom and doom Ira Gershwin alluded to in his lyrics for Girl Crazy, "With love to lead the way/ I've found more clouds of gray/ Than any Russian play could guarantee". Chekhov's instructions about frivolity and farce have been taken to heart.

The recent National Theatre production of Uncle Vanya disproved Peter Ustinov's adage that teamwork and Chekhov are, in acting terms, incompatible. It is true that his characters inhabit their own private worlds and rarely listen to one another, but the trick of good Chekhov is to find a group of actors who do just the opposite. One short cut is to cast the Cusack family or the Redgraves in The Three Sisters.

Irving Wardle described Mike Alfreds's 1985 production of The Cherry Orchard at the National as the most passionate he had ever seen. Sheila Hancock, who played Madame Ranyevskaya, attributes its success to Alfreds's working method, which develops a group understanding of the entire play. Her role has been played by other such luminaries as Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley and, famously, Peggy Ashcroft, none of which should deter Penelope Wilton (below) in Adrian Noble's new production. This is the role some of us have been waiting for her to play.

'The Cherry Orchard' is in preview at the RSC, Stratford and opens on Tues. 01789 295 623

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