THEATRE The Cherry Orchard Birmingham Rep

They're late. Returning from Paris, the family's connecting flight from Johannesburg was delayed. Both the location and the mode of transportation will come as a shock to anyone expecting another standard production of Chekhov's masterpiece, but the last thing Janet Suzman's inspired production gives you is the standard line.

Bad Brecht revivals and misguided agit-prop have led too many people to use the term "political theatre" as one of abuse, carrying with it suggestions of placards, slogans and hectoring. Yet even the flimsiest Noel Coward revival is political as it reinforces perceived notions of the past. If Suzman's production is seen as particularly "political" it is because, courtesy of Roger Martin's original South Africa adaptation, her version of the play retains all of Chekhov's fragile relationships but relocates the shifting struggles between the landowners, the peasants and the emerging bourgeoisie to the post-liberation South Africa.

The obvious gain is that of immediacy with faintly obscure Russian references replaced by contemporary ideas. We don't have to guess at the class status of Aleksander (the Lopakhin character). One look at his "designer gear and Gucci shoes" tells us everything about his new-found wealth (his Uncle Tom-ish flaunted hallmark of success), and avoids the usual trap of forcing the actor to overplay his peasant background. The placing of characters from the white family and their retinue of black servants down to the reinvention of the tutor Trofimov as the ANC-inspired eternal student Thekiso is startlingly acute and subtly underlines the undertones of the original which often get lost beneath sentimental layers of Russian whimsy, all rocking babushkas and steaming samovars.

As director, Suzman sets an energetic pace - on the family's return, Varya rushes across the room and jumps up into Anna's arms - and then pushes the pace even harder. No wonder. Despite the wonders of Mandela's new constitution, emotions are running very high in "this rainbow country". A remarkable actress herself, she's also very strong on encouraging details of character in her extraordinarily persuasive cast. As always in Chekhov, the difficulties arise in balancing the cross-currents between people. Despite Esmeralda Bihl's perfectly modulated Maria (Chekhov's Varya brilliantly reimagined as the coloured offspring of a drunken indiscretion by Ranevskaya's husband and an unnamed servant), the tension between her and Lophakin doesn't quite come off. Chekhov works best when the emotions are poised on a knife-edge toppling into grief or joy at a moment's notice. Suzman chooses to ricochet between the extremes, and the boisterousness does sometimes pay off. The super-charged climax to Act 3, with everyone scattered across Johan Engels's huge mansion set, hanging upon the announcement of the fate of the cherry orchard, is wonderfully staged, but you are too often left wondering what happened to the quieter passions. When these do surface, as in the beautifully played emerging love between Anna (Ania) and Thekiso (Trofimov), it comes as a blessed relief.

The really shocking thing about this imaginative production is that, in terms of contemporary political drama, there is nothing to touch it. As you watch the marvellously relaxed Patricia Boyer as Anna embodying Chekhov's fervent, youthful idealism within this powerful context, it also reminds you what a great dramatist he was. To 14 June. Booking: 0121-236 4455

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe