The Main Event: The Cherry Orchard

LAST time John Byrne turned his hand to adapting Chekhov, he gave us an Uncle Vanya transformed into Uncle Varick. On the play's 1899 debut at the Moscow Art Theatre, the Russian author had described it as "scenes from country life". Here, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in 2006, it became scenes from the north-east of Scotland in the 1960s. One character was a media pundit, the soundtrack featured The Beatles' Rubber Soul and the environment under threat was very much that of th

Coming from Byrne, author of The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, it was also very funny. All of which makes his return to Chekhov a tantalising proposition. Once again at the Royal Lyceum, he is turning his attention to The Cherry Orchard, the author's poignant final work from 1904 that marked the passing of an old order – symbolised by the sound of an axe hitting the family's treasured trees – and uncannily anticipated the changes about to sweep across Russia.

This time, the setting is rural Perthshire, somewhere near Braemar, where a well-to-do family is about to be unseated by the winds of change blowing through Britain during the 1978-79 winter of discontent. Chekhov's Madam Ranevskaya has become the debt-laden Mrs Ramsay-Mackay (played here by Maureen Beattie), while the social climber Lopakhin is now Malky McCracken (played by Andy Clark), a property investor and the son of a Braemar grocer who is about to become part of Margaret Thatcher's loadsamoney generation.

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"It was the director Tony Cownie's idea to set it specifically in the early months of 1979, which gives it a whole context," says Byrne.

The historical parallels, he says, are a comfortable fit. In an era of train strikes, the journey to Pitlochry is a real slog, giving the country house a Chekhovian remoteness. It requires no act of translation for McCracken, like Lopakhin before him, to be nurturing a scheme for building holiday homes on the estate. That the local shop has turned into a deli is a portent of an imminent social shift, even if the turbulence of the Thatcher years was not quite on the scale of the Russian revolution.

"It's so easy to find a parallel because there are big houses with people in them and they do go to Paris," says Byrne, who was born in Paisley in 1940. "It rings very true. I can see a distinct parallel even from my point of view and my background; it's very easy to think there's some guy who's dropped out of university. Nothing jars."

Byrne laughs to think of himself as a political writer, but is surprised at how revealing it has been to shift this classic tragic-comedy to 1979. "There were big changes for us that we can recognise historically," he says. "They were dramatic changes, as those of us who are old enough to remember will know. The family have no idea, they waste money and then it's McCracken who's a total idealist and gives long speeches that are very true to the Chekhovian ones. Now that it's in this context, I know what he's on about."

Despite all this, Byrne insists it is Chekhov's play with "nothing added or taken away". "It's a collaboration. He's done all the groundwork. I'm gilding the lily, but it has my stamp on it."

Ever since the earliest English-language productions of Chekhov, Britain has had an uneasy relationship with the writer's sense of humour. His plays are not out-and-out comedies, but if you perform only the pathos, you're likely to miss the point. Byrne's Uncle Varick, starring Brian Cox, was nothing if not funny, and his Cherry Orchard is likely to go the same way. "If you think of the comedy of life – what are we doing here? – it is a comedy," he says. "Billy Wilder said there's no such thing as comedy, there's just life, and if you don't find it funny, you're sunk. I don't have any punchlines in this, but people might fall off their seats at certain points because it's so ridiculous."

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What Byrne found harder to reconcile was a way of talking that struck him as uncomfortably direct. "Years and years ago I thought I'd love to do Three Sisters, and I looked at it and thought it was all exposition. People would say, 'I'm in mourning for my life.' I would never do that. And yet they're like reflections; they're like inner thoughts spoken aloud. It took me ages to get round to people speaking aloud in a way that sounds like exposition. I loved Chekhov anyway, but I love him more now than ever." v

The Cherry Orchard, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 16 April until 8 May