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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Free State
Touring Summer 2000
(Reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bath)

Actress Janet Suzman, herself a South African, has adapted Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard to make it applicable to present day Africa.

Suzman also stars in the play, which she co-directed with Martin L. Platt, and much of the cast is made up of transplanted South Africans, black and white.

Clearly this is a labour of love and dedication, and if it isn't totally successful, it still evokes some of the thought and emotion it wants to.

Chekhov's play, set almost exactly a century ago, is about a Russian aristocratic family so lost in the past that they can't come to grips with the fact that they're broke and their estate is about to be sold.

Meanwhile a former peasant has moved into the new middle class, and he impulsively buys the property, symbolising the revolutionary change in Russian society.

The applicability to modern South Africa leaps out at you, and it certainly was a striking inspiration on Suzman's part to spot the possibilities of adapting the play.

Chekhov's aristocrats are now liberal white South Africans, while the former peasant, the student radical and several other characters transposed from the original are black.

The African parallels are sometimes strained, but they are close enough to be evocative. For example, the fact that Leko (Jeffery Kissoon) is buying land seized from his ancestors resonates powerfully.

But Chekhov's play is primarily about the human experience; one doesn't go to it for a symbolic view of social change in 1900s Russia, but for an understanding of what these people thought and felt.

By turning its implicit social comment into its main focus, Suzman has inevitably flattened it. Reduced to symbols of old and new Africa, few of the characters have any dimension, and few of the actors are able to find much reality in them.

Suzman herself, playing the well-meaning but blinkered heroine, finds more dignity in the character than many actresses do in Chekhov's equivalent. And Kissoon's role is enriched by the change, as sporadic flashes of racial anger give his character some depth.

But Jack Klaff can do little with the role of Suzman's brother besides imbuing him with an almost unconscious racism, and the other characterisations are flat, some embarrassingly so (Turning the silly maid into a black character forces the actress to play her like Butterfly McQueen in Gone With the Wind).

In some ways Suzman's adaptation isn't ambitious enough. Characters (the clumsy neighbour, the magician-governess) and large chunks of dialogue from Chekhov that do not really serve her vision are carried over slavishly anyway, and drag the play down.

Meanwhile, too much of the overt political-social comment seems pasted onto the text rather than integrated into it. Only the last act discussion between the radical and the entrepreneur, when they discover common ground in their hopes for the future, successfully combines political analysis and human drama.

Exciting in concept, less successful in execution, The Free State plays like an early draft of a work that could be very effective some rewrites later.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Free State - Theatre Royal, Bath 2000


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