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A curious beast

PUBLISHED: 17:35 17 June 2009 | UPDATED: 17:24 16 August 2010

The Bridge Project is Kevin Spacey s trans-Atlantic brainchild, combining British and American talent at the Old Vic for two plays in repertory.

The Bridge Project is Kevin Spacey's trans-Atlantic brainchild, combining British and American talent at the Old Vic for two plays in repertory.

One of them is Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. This is a curious beast. Modernisms abound, and the apparent attempt to link pre-revolutionary Russian society with scandal-weary Britain is unconvincing - while we are inextricably linked with the US war on terror, the mixing of American and English accents in a Russian stately home is somewhat confusing.

A heavily carpeted and raked stage with minimalist period furniture reveals the snoozing Lopakhin (Simon Russell Beale) under a banner headline "O, call back yesterday, bid time return". This quote from Richard II may be vaguely apposite, but it is also a truism regarding the circumstances that the characters in this play find themselves in.

Too often director Sam Mendes tells us what to think instead of allowing the play to reveal the petty dramas of a dying social order. Sinéad Cusack is excellent as Madame Ranevskaya, the dissolute and indecisive owner of the cherry orchard and the estate that surrounds it. She and her brother, Gaev (Paul Jesson), return from a lavish trip to Paris to find that the chickens are finally coming home to roost and the whole estate is up for auction to pay off their debts.

Gaev is an arrogant, ineffectual windbag, whose verbose meanderings include an ode to a bookcase. His loving niece Anya (Morven Christie) constantly tells him to shut up and the old retainer Firs (Richard Easton) peevishly tries to keep him in order. Lopakhin, the hard-headed business man raised from the peasant classes, attempts patiently to plan a way out for Ranevskaya to save the estate by utilizing the now defunct cherry orchard, but he is ignored by her and ridiculed by her brother for his "vulgarity".

Meanwhile, the extended household and their hangers-on indulge in half-hearted courtships and jockey for position, totally ignoring the fact that the ship is sinking and they will have to get out or drown.

Part two opens with a last-gasp masquerade ball, where these social dinosaurs waltz and giggle. Entertained by a female magician (Selina Cadell) we all join in and ooh and ahh at her tricks, until the inevitable occurs and Lopakhin arrives drunk to announce that he has outbid the competition and bought the orchard and estate himself.

Trofimov (Ethan Hawke) the eternal student, has captured Anya's heart with his stirring revolutionary speeches and plans to whisk her away to a new life. The family is disintegrating and in a rare dramatic moment Simon Russell Beale reveals his peasant envy of the ruling class and trashes the stately home he has paid so much for.

Chekhov always regarded his plays as comedies, but Stoppard and Mendes have concentrated their efforts on enhancing the social and political problems, rather than the ridiculous personal traumas (mostly self-inflicted) that these people torture themselves with.

In so doing, they have lost the sublime comedy that shone through the 'Norman Conquest' trilogy which created such gales of agonized laughter.

* The Cherry Orchard is at the Old Vic, 103 The Cut, SE1 8NB until August 15. Running time is two hours 45mins.

Tickets cost £46 to £49. Call the box office on 0207 432 4220.

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