Lyoeba Ranevskaya is delirious with joy at being back on her estate with the old cherry orchard. She kisses her brother, she kisses her children, she kisses the table and the cupboard. Her unbridled happiness is infectious, but actually the landowner has little reason to be cheerful. Her capital evaporated during the mondaine years spent in Paris and the debts are mounting. Divide that garden into lots, says family friend Lopakhin, once a simple peasant, now a prosperous businessman. Divide it into lots and build summer houses. Lyoeba will have none of it. She closes her eyes to the new reality and wallows in what no longer exists. While her estate is being sold at an auction in the city, she throws one last party.

Feudalism versus capitalism; nostalgic ideal versus sober pragmatism; the aristocracy stubbornly clings to timeworn traditions while the nouveau riche picks up the baton. In The Cherry Orchard the old world clashes with the new. “Funny, very funny,” was how Chekhov described the idea for his last play in a letter to his wife. As far as he was concerned, The Cherry Orchard was a comedy. Opinions have been divided on that score since the first performance in 1904. Director Stanislavsky expressly billed the première of the play as drama, much to Chekhov’s displeasure. No doubt he would have preferred “a true comedy of high seriousness”, as the American writer Richard Gilman later wrote.

The actors of the Flemish theatre company STAN adhere to the words of the playwright. Their Cherry Orchard is a joyous production that allows plenty of scope for laughter, beginning with little tête-à-têtes with the audience. Thereafter the fourth wall comes down several times. Stage directions are drily delivered and changes of role provided with witty commentary: “So that was the first scene. Now get changed quickly, a different character.” Meanwhile the actors tinker with lighting and scenery in full view of everyone. Peeling glass doors on wheels are pushed round and represent the decline of the once so grand estate. In the third act they form a wide wall behind which the party erupts; the dancing to pumping music lasts for minutes.

With ten actors who are on stage pretty well continuously, this Cherry Orchard is a fine example of ensemble theatre. Jolente De Keersmaeker (Lyoeba) and Frank Vercruyssen (Lopakhin) are flanked by a mainly young group of people who depict their tragicomic characters with electric acting pleasure. They chat away almost casually, essential observations submerged in a sea of chit chat.

Deliberately of course. With STAN emotions are kept in check or delivered with irony. An enthusiastic pot of kisses is rounded off with a satisfied ‘delightful’, a broken heart is concealed behind an evasive look. Melancholy and nostalgia are there, but what prevails is a tone of superficial cheerfulness. In this airy Cherry Orchard human tragedies are hidden behind nonchalance as the characters jauntily dance their way towards their destruction.

Joukje Akveld, Het Parool, May 26th 2015