Lyttelton, National Theatre
Turgenev’s A Month in the Country has certainly been through the mill with numerous `adaptations’ and a famously lush ballet choreographed in the 1970s by Sir Frederick Ashton starring the extraordinary and unique Lynn Seymour with Anthony Dowell. Dorothy Tutin also made the part of Natalya, the restless, unhappy wife of a rich Russian landowner who falls for her son’s tutor, incomparably her own, also in the Seventies.
Now we have Patrick Marber’s version as adapter and director. Typically, it’s a modernist vision, excising Turgenev’s 19th century Russian romanticism whilst still managing to retain its romance. Indeed, the element is so woven into the narrative the play would hardly exist without it!
But whilst Turgenev’s original seems like a forebear of Chekhov (particularly his later Uncle Vanya) in its unhappy, ill-matched partners – once again it’s a question of unreciprocated love displayed either as damaging tragedy or just as damaging, as farce – Marber’s easy on the ear, shorn version cuts a harder, more satirical edge.
Nowhere is this more true than in Mark Gatiss’s treasurable account of the doctor, Shpigelsky, at once witty, pompous, heartless as well as self-knowing and in his wooing of Debra Gillett’s equally comic, spinsterish Lizaveta, not without pathos. Together, Gatiss and Gillett make his proposal and her response two of the stand-out moments of the evening.
But though Marber’s direction and abstract approach – Mark Thompson’s design gives us an empty stage dominated by large glass panels suggestive of white birches and wooden dacha – leave occasional empty emotional spaces, John Simm’s hopelessly devoted Rakitin to Amanda Drew’s crisp, disappointed Natalya, John Light and Lynn Farleigh as respectively, Natalya’s pre-occupied farmer husband, Arkady and his mother, Anna, provide intense if shortened compensations. One longs for longer exchanges. But all too soon, they’re gone.
Thankfully, Turgenev’s wisdoms and richness remain sufficiently intact. This is so much a generational play about love and passion, regret and ageing vividly brought to life by two newcomers – Royce Pierreson’s Belyaev, the destructive young outsider to whom Natalya is helplessly drawn; and Lily Sacofsky as Vera, Natalya’s ward – caught equally in the web of Natalya’s infatuation for Belyaev and her own.
Rewarding, in the end!
Three Days in the Country plays at the NT to Oct 21, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate, Aug 2015