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Monday, 26 October 2015

At the National Theatre

'THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY'
By R.J. Chellel
PJ Theatre Critic
[WC News Service]
LONDON
Three Days In the Country, 'a version' of the Turgenov play by Patrick Marber who also directed. Cast included John Simm (outstanding as Rakitin), Mark Gatiss (as the melancholic, sarcastic doctor, Shpigelsky), John Light (with a big beard and oddly macho as the landowner, Arkady), Amanda Drew (as his bored and sexually frustrated wife), Royce Pierreson (the heart-throb student, Belyaev), Lily Sacofsky (the seventeen year-old Vera), and Nigel Betts (the foolish, fat, rich neighbour, Bolshintsov.) Also Debra Gillett, Gawn Grainger and Cherrelle Skeete.

I try to keep a record of the plays I've seen, usually writing down my impressions in a sort of review -- as  kind of aide memoire.  As I've been to nearly sixty plays this year alone, this amounts to quite a few pages, even if I don't get around to reviewing every production.  
I tend to avoid the big West End theatres. But I do go to the National Theatre fairly often. There are three auditoriums there:  the two huge ones (the Lyttelton and the Olivier), and the smaller studio theatre, now called the Dorfman in honour of the big cheese of the TravelEx money-changing company who has donated zillions to the NT.  

Obviously producers at the National have enormous (state-subsidised) budgets to work with, sums fringe companies can only dream about.  Whether the money necessarily buys quality is an interesting question.

I recently saw an NT revival of Caryl Churchill's play about the English Civil Wars called Light Shining In Buckinghamshire which had a cast of around sixty people and eye-poppingly lavish sets.  And you know what?  I very much preferred the production I saw some years ago at a tiny fringe theatre that basically involved five actors, five chairs, and an apple.

The new Artistic Director at the National is Rufus Norris, and it will be interesting to see whether and how, over time, the NT will sharpen up its act, so to speak. Three Days In The Country, until recently at the National Theatre, is one of the new plays produced under his regime, written by Patrick Marber, known to most people (I suppose) for Closer which was made into a film with Natalie Portman and Jude Law.

I did my homework by reading Constance Garnett's translation of the Turgenev, then saw Marber's 'version' at the Lyttelton.

 
Patrick Marber titled this production 'a version' of Turgenev's A Month In The Country. So what might be the divergences between the original text and this 'version'? Do those divergences actually make the play truer (in the perception of the modern audience) to the spirit of what Turgenev wrote a century and a half ago?

Marber sticks pretty closely to the original plot but loses many of the aspects that make the play interesting. Shpigelsky, the cynical doctor who seems to have wandered in from a Chekhov play and who alludes to himself as "the master of misdiagnosis," is made to be a clown in the NT production. In the vitally important scene where he coldly proposes marriage to the middle-aged spinster, Lizaveta Bogdanovna, his cynicism, self-loathing and contempt for the gentry, upon whose ailments his income depends, are undermined by Marber's decision to play the scene for laughs. He makes Shpigelsky get down on one knee which puts his back into spasm and then to deliver his lines (abbreviated -- or mutilated -- by Marber) comically crawling across the stage belly-up, crab-style. The NT audience thought this was hilarious.

Natalya's husband, Arkady Islayev, is depicted by Turgenev as a decent man, willing to forgive his friend Rakitin's infatuation with is wife, failing to understand her violent emotions; not a fool like Bolshintsov, but always kind and meaning well.

Interestingly he is the only genteel person in the play who does any work, and one suspects that the neurotic excesses of many of the other characters stem from their sheer idleness. There is a sweet ineffectuality about Arkady, but Marber has made him into a swaggering Tolstoy figure, an alpha male with an enormous brown beard. Surely Arkady's lack of masculine assertiveness is partly the cause of his wife's sexually frustrated hysteria. Like Richard Strauss's Marschallin, her rival for the affections of the twenty-one year-old Belyaev is young and pretty, but unlike the Marschallin Natalya doesn't gracefully accept the inevitability of ageing.

Marber demonstrates her hysteria by having her roll around the floor in a kind of sexual frenzy, and at one point she holds her hand over a candle flame, presumably to punish herself for lusting after Belyaev, her ward's tutor. Everyone is forever asking her if she's ill, but Dr.Shpigelsky (who secretly despises her) knows very well that hers is an illness of the mind, not the body. Yet here again Marber understates the essential point about Natalya: that she is spoiled, flighty, scheming, arbitrary, dishonest and self-indulgent – a nasty character, really, who toys with the feelings of others. Rakitin has been the victim of her caprice for years, kept by her as a sort of lap-dog to gratify her vanity, there to be petted or kicked as the mood takes her.

As for Rakitin, John Simm gave an excellent performance – certainly the best actor in the show – but made his character rather too sympathetic, too vigorous and independent, despite his wimpy doting on Natalya. The programme notes say that Rakitin was based on Turgenev himself, so this may be Marber's rationale here.

The Islayev estate is a hothouse of frustrated sexual desire, and perhaps the heat of the Russian summer could have been made a symbolic correlative of that. Characters struggle to talk privately and are frequently overheard or interrupted by others at crucial moments.

In this production, designed by Mark Thompson, a large red iron door dominates the set, first suspended high above the stage, then, in Acts IV and V, at floor level. I'm guessing that this device has a double significance: first, it's a symbolic portal to the world outside the estate ("the open air", as somebody says).

Characters frequently decide to resolve their difficulties by departing, then change their minds and remain. Stay? Go? Stay? Go? It gets a little silly on the page. Second, the red door represents the passage from sexual fantasy to sexual reality; behind it, is "a room for assignations," as one character says – in Marber, but not in the original. Marber makes Vera the illegitimate product of Islayev's father's tryst with a peasant girl, conceived behind that red door presumably, and, in a highly gratuitous addition to the text, has Belyaev seducing – or being seduced by – the sexy young maidservant, Katya.

Formal pairings among the gentry are made more with finance in mind than passion. Natalya wants to get rid of her seventeen year-old rival, Vera, by marrying her off to the fat, foolish neighbouring landowner who is nearly fifty, Shpigelsky, who has his eye on Lizaveta's 15,000 roubles, and Natalya's own marriage was very likely to have been made with Islayev's money and estate in mind. In this respect, Shpigelsky's cynical take on love and marriage is as pertinent to the thematic perspective of the play as the anguished 'lesson' on love given by Rakitin to the unresponsive Belyaev in Act V.

I came away from this performance feeling ambivalent about it. Would I have been more enthusiastic if I hadn't read Constance Garnett's early 20th century translation? Maybe – but, despite the sharpness of Marber's dialogue (e.g. "Meeting him [Bolshintsov] is the same as not meeting him" or "Everyone's a joke they don't get"), I'm unconvinced that he's distilled the essence of Turgenev's play from the original.

As in so many National Theatre productions, the enormous size of the Lyttelton stage can be a problem. Here characters, when not involved in the action, sat silently in chairs around the perimeter, not a novel device, but one that would be more effective in a studio theatre, rather than the Lyttelton's vastness. As it was, characters often conducted conversations with each other at a distance of twenty yards -- but then I suppose the distance between them was the point. I noticed that when Islayev was onstage with his wife, they scarcely looked at each other, usually keeping a considerable distance between them.

In terms of performance, the wooden spoon goes to Lily Sacofsky as Vera. In moments of emotion her intonation became embarrassingly actorish and artificial, and she never adequately demonstrated the change in Vera's character from timid ingénue to the tough little cookie who rounds on the manipulative Natalya, finally determining coldly to throw herself away by marrying Bolshintsov. ("Anything in the the world is better than staying here.")

As in Chekhov, a generation or so later than Turgenev, pathos rubs up against comedy, just as in real life. Of course Marber understands this, but in Three Days In The Country he emphasises the latter to the detriment of the former.
 

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