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
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food