THEATRE The Cherry Orchard Birmingham Rep

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The Independent Culture
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