The Cherry Orchard


At first it looks as though the Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas has flown thousands of miles just to have a little joke at our expense. His Cherry Orchard, which premiered in 1990 as the Baltic state struggled to break free from 50 years of Soviet rule, opens with the sight of a man and a woman sitting with their backs to the audience, jointly clasping a frail sprig of cherry blossom. They hold the pose for minutes on end, while the woman converses with another man, almost out of view, who mumbles his replies.

The method in this rudeness becomes apparent only when the seated gent looks over his shoulder and confides, through a forced grin: "Every day some disaster happens to me. But I don't complain. I even smile." The effect is droll and disturbing, drawing you in, and yet heightening your sense of alienation from the bumbling clerk, Yepikhodov.

If it doesn't grab you, then you'd better leave; it is just the first of many liberties the director takes with Chekhov's last work. Here all the characters are pawns in Tuminas's strategy to render the pervading air of abortive communication visually explicit.

Of course, this could be justified on the grounds of helping a foreign production to scale the language barrier. But, perversely, Tuminas draws your attention to inconsequential chatter that continually hedges round the fate of Liubov Ranevskaya's bankrupt estate and her beloved orchard.

The director squeezes his company, the Small Theatre of Vilnius, into expressionistic corsets of drowsy impassivity and feigned indifference. The Gayev family, with their friends and servants, are shown rooted to the spot as the future raises its axe of change. Freezing into tableaux at the drop of one of their many winter hats, the characters talk to the floorboards, to the stalls, to anything but each other. When Egle Gabrenaite's magnificent Ranevskaya arrives back on the estate from self-imposed exile in Paris and is bundled inside by a welcoming committee like some refugee president, she stares blankly into the distance. Her inaction speaks louder than her words of glad homecoming. Throughout, the conversation falters, yielding to drawn-out silences or to the composer Faustas Latenas's melancholic sound track of piano chords, wind chimes, and departing trains.

By dislocating the action from the text, Tuminas casts a shadow over the acts of childishness, indolence and frivolity that prop up this doomed bourgeois existence. Such laughter as there is is weighted with menace. Sitting on a pile of trunks surrounded by a pack of cronies, Ranevskaya snorts derisively as Lopakhin (Sigitas Rackys), the peasant-born businessman who will snap up her property in the inevitable auction, declares his feelings for her. When the talk turns to those who have died in her absence, there are howls of savage laughter. Haunted by the loss of her son, Ranevskaya's life of denial is shown in its most repugnant form.

Time and again, Tuminas almost snaps the text in his attempt to bend it to the coldness and violence of his vision. The old bookcase cherished by Ranevskaya's doddering brother becomes an agent of death, crashing through the rafters. The governess, Charlotte, kills the baby in her care. The eternal student Trofimov accepts Lopakhin's bribe, contradicting his outspoken refusal.

Even the final hug between brother and sister is denied: Ranevskaya pushes Gayev away. The fruit of Tuminas's Cherry Orchard may be bitter, but judging by the enthusiastic response in Brighton last week, it is not in the least bit unpalatable.

Tues-Sat, Derby Playhouse (booking: 01332 363275), surtitled.