Uniquely, the audience are privy as to how vast the Lyttleton stage is when they go to see its latest production, Three Days In The Country. Mark Thompson, the Designer, is allowing the wings to be in full view, which ensures that Patrick Marber’s new version of Turgenev’s A Month In The Country is as pacey as it is funny. There are no pauses as the cast come and go; they just sidestep upstage, stage left or right, whilst their counterpart simultaneously enters the acting arena. Slickness is the order of the day.
Patrick Marber is back in full force here at The National, what with new play, The Red Lion playing in The Dorfman and this re-working and re-naming of Turgenev’s best known play in The Lyttleton. The original is entitled Three Months In The Country and has a running time of around four hours, whilst this offering reduces the period to three days and lasts a much more manageable 150 minutes. Such is the quality, not only of the writing, but also the direction (Patrick Marber) and performances by the whole cast, that the longer running time actually wouldn’t be at all unacceptable.
The paired down set with its melancholy backdrop of fields, trees and clouds brings into focus that, although this play is a comedy, it also highlights the futility and sadness that can come hand in hand with love and passion. A haunting red door, seemingly hanging in mid-air and leading, who knows where, is also symbolic of love going nowhere.
The house in the country where the play is set is seemingly happy enough, that is until the arrival of a new tutor for Vera, the owners’ ward. Young, virile and handsome, Belyaev (Royce Pierreson) sets hearts a fluttering, even that belonging to the middle-aged Natalya (Amanda Drew), mistress of the house. It soon transpires that this languid, self-indulgent gentle woman, is bored to tears with Arkady (John Light), her rich landowner husband and longs for some sexual excitement. Her long time friend, Rakitin (Jon Simm), has been invited to inject some frisson into her existence, but to no avail. He’s just a love struck puppy and no match for the virile Belyaev. Also smitten are the young Vera (Lily Sacofsky) and the maidservant, Katya (Cherrelle Skeete), although the latter is more than happy for just a bit of “slap and tickle”. Not so Vera, who falls hook, line and sinker for Belyaev’s charms and changes from a radiant young thing into a white faced introvert on realising her love isn’t reciprocated. Unrequited love abounds in this large country house, as the socially gauche and professionally inept Doctor Shpigelsky, also fails in the love stakes, being unable to persuade the snuff taking spinster, Lizaveta (Debra Gillett), that marriage to him would be a good idea. Hysterically played by Mark Gatiss, the Doctor literally falls flat on his face (well knees anyway) during his proposal. After uttering romantic offerings such as, “I have the heart of a hard pea”, he gets down on one knee before succumbing to severe back pain, which renders him incapable of standing.
This is fine ensemble acting from all concerned. Amanda Drew is a perfect Natalya, evolving from the stereotypical rich wife into a much more complex, sad human being, eaten up with envy on realising that Vera has fallen in love with the man she wants. Likewise, Jon Simm (always excellent in my book) makes Rakitin much more than a man destined never to find happiness with the love of his life. His affable cynicism at the beginning of the play gradually turns into profound sadness as he confronts the years he has wasted in focusing all his love on the one woman who will never love him back. Debra Gillett and Mark Gatiss are an exquisite double act, bringing the house down during the proposal scene.
If Rufus Norris continues in this vein, all will continue to be well on the South Bank.