The last high-flyer who tried to bridge the Atlantic was Tony Blair. Now Sam Mendes is having a go with his long-planned season at Kevin Spacey's Old Vic, kicking off with The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale. Mendes is nothing if not a risk-taker, and this is the opening work of a three-year British-American ensemble that will tour the world. In 2010 they will move on to Three Sisters and As You Like It. I don't think this production of Chekhov quite matches up to the Uncle Vanya which Mendes directed at the Donmar in 2002 and which scooped a handful of Olivier awards, but it's a fascinating effort and well worth seeing, despite its flaws. Although the play has already been seen in New York, the performance I saw at the Old Vic was a preview, and I have the feeling that it will probably improve. The text of The Cherry Orchard is a new one by Tom Stoppard which flows easily, with one or two characteristic puns; its only flaw is that it tones down some of the conflicts between the characters by smoothing away some of the verbal aggression that's there in the original Russian. Sinead Cusack is excellent as Ranevskaya, and I was hugely impressed by Rebecca Hall's performance as her adopted daughter Varya, whose collapse in Act Four when the businessman Lopakhin fails to propose to her is the most heartbreaking moment in the play. Chekhov is the undisputed master of broken dreams and missed opportunities; he finds comedy and tragedy in the things that should happen but don't. I was less convinced by Simon Russell Beale as Lopakhin. I am a huge fan and I remember his Uncle Vanya as a truly great performance, but here this most cerebral of actors is cast against type as the wealthy and boorish former peasant who buys the beloved cherry orchard and the estate from the impoverished gentry. Lopakhin is not a bad man, but he is totally lacking in emotional intelligence, and Russell Beale seems to have difficulty conveying this aspect of the role. This Lopakhin is too genial and not quite ruthless enough, and the moment in Act Three when he returns from the auction as the new owner and systematically goes around the room kicking over all the chairs seems out of character and artificial. This wasn't the only moment in the play where I felt that the director was striving for effect rather than looking for the real meaning of this multi-layered text. There's a moment when a tipsy passer-by comes in and asks for a few kopecks; Ranevskaya hasn't got any, so she gives him a gold coin instead and he can't believe his luck. Mendes takes this scene and builds it up into something quite different; the passer-by appears as one of a vaguely menacing line of proletarian figures who appear in silhouette upstage against the back wall, suggesting the heaving angry Russian masses. It's a nice idea, and this is a play in which Chekhov came close to flirting with symbolism, but I think it's unneccessary. There's a similar superfluity in the opening of Act Three when Ranyevskaya's informal social evening with a Jewish band is turned by Mendes into a formal masked ball where the ladies carry fans and the gentlemen in evening dress look as though they have strayed in from the ball scene in Evgeny Onegin. It just looks wrong and adds very little. Chekhov's play is deeply packed with social nuances and the battle between the classes is one of its major subtexts, but most of these go missing. As the old servant Firs complains, the days when the masters were masters and the serfs were serfs have long disappeared, but Mendes takes the erosion of class barriers much too far. When the vain valet Yasha helps himself to the champagne put out for the guests in Act Four, it should be a transgressive and taboo-breaking moment, but the impact is completely lost because Yasha has been helping himself to wine and coffee throughout the play. Dunyasha the maid is called upon to dance at the party -- another transgressive moment -- but in this production the impact is lost because she's dressed in a ballgown and equipped with a fan from the start. Everyone lounges around from the start on a basis of social equality, which certainly wasn't what Chekhov intended. Declan Donnellan's Cheek By Jowl production of Three Sisters at the Barbican a couple of years ago got it right by subtly emphasising the class barrier etween the three snobby gentrified sisters and the petty bourgeois upstart Natasha who becomes their sister-in-law and gradually drives them out of their house. Another moment of superfluous tinkering by Mendes comes in Act Two, where Dunyasha starts to unbutton Yasha's flies with the obvious intention of giving him a blow-job. It's more New York in 2009 than rural Russia in 1904. The set design by Anthony Ward is simple and uncluttered, with a rectangular platform and a few carpets and articles of furniture. There's nothing particularly Russian about it, and it seems particularly urban rather than rural. If the audience want to get the sense that there's a beautiful cherry orchard just off stage waiting for the axe, then they will have to shut their eyes and use their imaginations, because the director and his designer seem oblivious to it. Another moment when Mendes tries to change the meaning of Chekhov's text and gets it wrong comes at the end of Act Two where the moth-eaten eternal student Trofimov and the soppy 17-year-old Anya spout platitudes about the glorious future to each other. 'We are higher than love!' they pompously declare. Mendes adds a passionate snog to this encounter. The comedy of this scene goes completely missing, which is largely because Ethan Hawke's performance as Trofimov is one-dimensional and ignores the pretentious and ridiculous aspect of the character. Chekhov is poking fun at these ascetic high-minded pseudo-revolutionaries, even though he may well have shared some of the ideas that Trofimov proclaims about the future. Trofimov is attacked by Ranevskaya later in the play as a sexless prig who has never been kissed, but the line becomes meaningless if the attraction between him and Anya is physical. Chekhov's play is a work of genius and directors should be wary of trying to improve it. Declan Donnellan shows the way by respecting his text and seeking layers of meaning inside it, rather than adding stage business that doesn't really belong.