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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Amanda Drew and Royce Pierreson/ Ph: Mark Douet

There is a scene in Patrick Marber’s sprightly, heavily cut adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country – appropriately renamed Three Days in the Country – where one of the characters, a visiting quack called Shpigelsky, blatantly aware of his many shortcomings as a medical practitioner, gets down on one knee to propose to a snuff-sniffing spinster of a certain age. At the height of his ardour, a sudden spasm in his back renders the moment farcical as he writhes in agony prior to finding himself in a supine position, awkwardly inching his way across the floor on his stomach. As played by Mark Gatiss and Debra Gillett, the scene elicits welcome guffaws, which are decidedly at odds with the psychological angst in which most of the play’s other characters appear to be drowning.
Though Turgenev wrote A Month in the Country in 1850 (due to censorship problems it wasn’t staged until 1872), the adjective most frequently applied to describe it, is Chekhovian – even though it preceded Chekhov’s masterpieces by 40 years. It is not difficult to see why.
The play is set in 1840 in the grand country estate of Arkady Islaev (John Light), a wealthy but ineffectual landowner seven years older than 29-year-old Natalya Petrovna (Amanda Drew), his attractive but domineering, manipulative wife. Bored to distraction, Natalya dallies with the affections of Rakitin (John Simm), a family friend who has never forgotten the kiss she gave him seven years earlier.
The appearance of Alexi Belyaev (Royce Pierreson), a good-looking, personable 21-year-old who has been hired to tutor Natalya’s young son Kolya, is the catalyst for the series of emotional tremors that – in the three days in which the play takes place – rocks the shaky foundations of most of the play’s characters. Not only is Natalya passionately in love with Belyaev, so is her 17-year-old ward and stepdaughter Vera (Lily Sacofsky). To make sure that she has Belayev all to herself, Natalya suggests that Vera marry Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts), a wealthy, elderly neighbour she does not love.
Misunderstandings proliferate as Rakitin continues to pursue Natalya and Natalya continues to pursue Belyaev. It’s only when Natalya’s none-too-bright husband finally becomes aware of what has been going on under his nose that both Belyaev and Rakitin decide the time has come to take their leave. As the household gradually empties, Natalya finds herself lonelier and more bored than ever. Chekhovian or what? Indeed, it is an irony that, due to the fame of Chekhov’s four great plays, Turgenev’s remarkable early blueprint retains its popularity today.
Because the original text of A Month in the Country is about four hours long, it is rarely played uncut, and most adaptations, including those of Emlyn Williams and Brian Friel, give it a more manageable running time. Marber’s version, which lasts about two hours including an interval, is the shortest I’ve seen and, because of the humour he appliques onto the fabric of its high-strung text, one of the most enjoyable and entertaining. It is also the most superficial, in that it marginalises its innate pessimism, underscores the play’s themes of guilt, jealousy and betrayal, and dilutes its deeper psychological insights.
He removes the play’s revealing soliloquies, leaving just enough information about the characters’ inner emotions to keep us in the loop. In the case of Natalya's husband Arkady, though, there is no back-story at all. This is Turgenev-lite, the slim-line version.
It’s efficiently directed by Marber as an ensemble piece, and while all the performances are excellent, the showiest belongs to Gatiss as the cynical doctor Shpigelsky. And it’s good to see Lynn Farleigh back on stage as Arkady’s elderly mother.
Mark Thompson’s set is uncluttered, to say the least: a Turner-esque cloudy sky; large, barely transparent panels that go up and down; ditto a red door whose significance escapes me; and a few pieces of essential furniture.
For much of the time, the cast remains onstage, discreetly seated in the background along the three sides of the proscenium arch. The lack of realism is compensated for by Neil Austin’s moody, atmospheric lighting. A featherweight, but an engaging evening. 


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