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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Amanda Drew/ Ph: Mark Douet

The connection of sex with political subversion wouldn’t become explicit till almost 100 years after Turgenev’s A Month in the Country was written in 1869, yet Patrick Marber’s invigorating update makes this the play’s conceptual backbone. It resonates strongly, not least because Turgenev’s political views were so tightly bound up with his sexual preferences. Educated in Germany, his Enlightenment ideals made him strongly opposed to serfdom. Whether or not these ideals preceded his attraction to various serfs working for his family is not clear – but it is known that at least one illegitimate daughter resulted from such liaisons.
His play’s central theme – of a young and attractive tutor stirring up a love rivalry between the bored wife of a wealthy landowner and her foster daughter – retains elements of controversy even today. Often it is seen as a classic of unrequited love, yet Marber, who also directs, makes it clear from the production’s outset that the tremors the tutor sends through the household presage the eventual downfall of Russia’s decadent landowning class. The backdrop to the stage is a painting of a rural landscape that evokes works by Russian 19th-century artists like Fyodor Vasiliev or Isaak Levitan. Yet above the stage hangs a red door, a symbol – on one level – of tantalizing opportunities on the other side, but surely also a wink to Mikhail Roginsky’s 1965 Red Door, which heralded Russian art’s breakthrough to modernity.
This light pinch of postmodernism is also implicit in the positioning of the cast members. While we watch the multiple strands of love story developing centre stage, the actors not directly involved in the action sit watching the others from the outskirts. This adds to the sense of a world turned in on itself, where the claustrophobia can be directly observed in the stylish ennui exuded by Amanda Drew’s extraordinary Natalya as she reclines, poisoned by disappointment, on her chaise-longue. Next to her, John Simm delivers an equally powerful performance as the family friend Raitkin. Waspishly paying court, on the one hand he is the embodiment of wit and detachment, on the other clearly devoured from inside by his unrequited love for Natalya.
Royce Pierreson plays Belyaev, the tutor to Natalya’s son Kolya, who sets pulses racing in a household that, prior to his arrival, seems to have existed like the living dead, destroyed by a vampiric boredom. Pierreson’s performance nicely calibrates the balance between his youthful enjoyment in his flirtations, and his puzzlement to be found the object of such desperate desire. Marber subtly foregrounds the genuine attraction that he seems to find with the maidservant Katya (Cherelle Skeete) in a moment where she starts to sing shyly, and then lets rip across the auditorium. Next to such uninhibited self-expression, Natalya’s stiff sexual awakening and the coy flirtations of her ward Vera (charmingly played by Lily Sacofsky) can only ultimately ring hollow.
At a point when Benedict Cumberbatch is sending fans wild over at the Barbican with his Hamlet, it will appeal to Sherlock connoisseurs that Mark Gatiss, the show’s co-creator, emerges as one of this production’s highlights as Dr Shpigelsky. In an extraordinary proposal scene to Debra Gillett’s bemused, skeptical Lizaveta, he proclaims himself a "maestro of misdiagnosis" with the "heart of a hard pea." It is a master class in how not to propose. Yet the overt, wonderfully painful comedy of errors underlines the far more serious questions running through the play about the compromises and inevitable misery inherent in marriage contracts of the time.
All in all, this is a beautifully calibrated evening – an intelligently pared-down version of Turgenev that makes him a voice for the 21st century at the same time as remaining true to the impulses that originally drove him. In a year that has also seen the triumphant premiere of his play The Red Lion at the National Theatre, it reveals Marber once more as a giant of our cultural era, proving yet another coup for Rufus Norris’ early reign here.


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