THEATRE / A generous bite . . .: Paul Taylor on the Maly Theatre's Cherry Orchard

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Little more than an offstage rumour in most productions, the eponymous Cherry Orchard is a powerful, evocative presence throughout in Lev Dodin's magical staging of Chekhov's last play with St Petersburg's Maly Theatre. Eduard Kochergin's dark dream- like design imagines Ranievskaia's house and estate as a narcissistic forest of tall-framed and dusty windows-cum-mirrors, on each of which are ghosted the glimmering lineaments of a bowed cherry blossom. Avian twitterings and hootings sound out from various parts of the auditorium, giving the impression that the whole theatre is bird-haunted.

This Cherry Orchard conspicuously springs from the same sensibility that at the start of the Maly Theatre's Gaudeamus (a sort of black Russian Carry On Sergeant) had you laughing aloud with delight as waves of raw recruits bounded on to a snowy slope and were promptly swallowed up by the holes with which the terrain was riddled.

The absurd but balletic grace of that dotty vanishing act is recaptured here by the delicate zaniness with which Dodin and company conjure up the emotionally chaotic world of this play, with its posing, feckless landowners, eternal students, serfs made good, and wall-to-wall frustrates. This can be seen not just in the moments of charming slapstick (as when, in this version, Epikhodov gives Yacha and Douniacha the opportunity to snatch a quick, illicit snog by continually toppling head first into the pond). It's also responsible for some thoroughly Jacobean moments Dodin has added, as when Varia, earnestly hunting for Trofimov and Ania, is suddenly sidetracked by the sight of her reflection in the pond and starts doing bird impressions with her fringed shawl. Chekhov's own keen eye for our capacity to be distracted by the trivial, even in a crisis, is honoured by that droll interpolation.

Tatiana Chestakova looked ridiculously young for the part of Ranievskaia. Her Parisian lover is supposed to have jilted her for another woman, but Chestakova is herself the age that 'other women' tend to be. She was, to my mind, the one disappointment in a production which splendidly renewed your sense of the play's formal daring and perfection. The seamless transitions from one act to the next are particularly haunting. Charlotte's firing of the gun at the end of Act Two seems to be the pistol-start for the masterly ballroom scene that instantly assembles; the wild dance which Lopakhine begins after announcing his purchase of the orchard appears to initiate the dismantling process on the home that's near to bleak completion in what follows. Not to be missed.

Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (081-741 2311) till Apr 17; then touring

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