The cast of The Cherry Orchard | Southbank Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Simon Stone’s stylish and audacious adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Southbank Theatre is stark, funny and very clever. Chekhov’s drama has been transported in time, geography and idiom, so far from the claustrophobic world of late 19th century Russia, you could argue it is a completely different play. But nothing can hide the characters overwhelming sense of empty hope and melancholic dread of future catastrophe, not even when the setting is a bright and sunny country like Australia.

The plot itself is straightforward: Ranevskaya, played by the truly wonderful Pamela Rabe, is an aging neurotic beauty returning to her country estate after a failed romance in Paris. She is broke and faces the prospect of financial ruin as the estate has long ceased making money and neither she nor her feckless brother, Gayev (Robert Menzies), are willing to face facts. If they have to sell they will plunge themselves and their retinue into virtual penury.

Fortunately, Ranevskava’s former labourer Lopakhin (the excellent Steve Mouzakis), now a successful property developer, has a keep-rich-quick plan that could work, but involves the subletting of land on which grows the famous family cherry orchard, a thing of great beauty that yields very little. Will Ranevskava follow advice from the grocer’s son? He is, in her mind, a crass upstart and second-generation immigrant to boot.

This is the core plot surrounded with a smattering of intertwined and spurned love affairs, minor disappointments and recollections. Nothing much happens, but the female characters shine (particularly Eloise Mignon as Anya and Zahra Newman’s Varya) in contrast to a group of lost and insipid men. For my part, I have never found two and a half hours of nothing happening quite so gripping.

Stone locates his version of The Cherry Orchard in a nearly modern place that is on the precipice of massive change — I don’t mean the type of tinkering brought about by our Pygmy-brained politicians, but deeper disruption of a broader and more lasting kind. What that change will entail exactly, social chaos and or environmental crisis, is hard to say, but it is sure to come.

It’s against this larger backdrop that Chekhov’s characters, as in all his plays, live their small and seemingly pointless lives caught in a kind of amber stasis. They get swallowed up by delusions of self-grandeur or unchecked appetites, and are unable to act either to save themselves or help others. When the humor is not slapstick it inspires pathos, something redolent of a very 21st century type of malaise.

My perfunctory reading of Penguin Classics translation of The Cherry Orchard shows that Stone has kept even minor plot twists, modified with amusing modern-day linguistic additions and the odd profanity. The music is also well chosen; in the party scene, for example, Jewish band tunes are replaced by David Bowie’s Heroes. Purists might decry this approach, but I think he has breathed a bold freshness into the play that is absent when set in the stuffy lounge rooms of late-imperial Russia.

Designer Alice Babidge’s brilliant set is a brilliant white, breaking open the play by physically letting in light and spilling the action literally in and around the audience. Stone’s characters are subject to a kind of close forensic examination, which would have probably made the play’s first Russian director Stanislavsky, with his penchant for hyperrealism, very pleased.

Even better, by setting the play outside Russia and its original time Stone removes a layer of irony that allows fresh interpretations — this version, with its self-conscious nod to the conventions of our own time, reality TV and the like reveals the impression the first Russian audiences at the Moscow Art Theatre must have felt. They, like us, understood change was coming, but knew nothing about the terrible forms it would take.

High praise to an exemplary and tightly directed cast, all of whom performed very well in what is a difficult play to strike the right tone, doubly so with experimentations. Stone cements his growing reputation with this production. I saw his elegant and austere Wild Duck after Ibsen’s, which won plaudits in Norway and elsewhere. This Cherry Orchard will no doubt do the same.

The details: The Cherry Orchard plays the Southbank Theatre until September 25. Tickets on the company website.

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