It’s rare to see a Russian drama that feels as light and fresh as this one, so used as we are to claustrophobic sets and a sense of pointless oppression. Frequently in such plays, the characters sit around for several hours talking about ploughing or some equally riveting subject while not confessing how they all really feel about each other. For all the burning passions that are supposed to exist under the surface, nothing much actually happens and everyone goes home again more or less in the exact same position as they arrived. But actors enjoy the intellectual challenge so Chekhov in particular remains a perennial favourite on the London stage, but I’d long come to the conclusion that perhaps Russian drama is not for me.
Then, the National Theatre came along with this glorious adaptation of Turgenev’s Three Days in the Country, a figurative lightning strike that revealed to me what everyone else has been seeing under the corn threshing chat all these years, and perhaps more importantly proves that the National Theatre really is back in business. Now I’ve certainly given the NT a very hard time in the last couple of years, signifying the death throes of the previous director’s reign and the warming up of the Rufus Norris era (not that changing management is any excuse for over a year of shoddy work). But suddenly the clouds have parted and the sun is shining on the Southbank once again. This year I’ve seen 5 NT production, 3 of which were genuinely excellent (Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem and this one), 1 was decent (Rules for Living) and 1 was dreadful (A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) which is a pretty impressive hit rate in just 6 months.
Patrick Marber, most famously the writer of Closer, has adapted and directed this new version of Turgenev’s novel A Month in the Country, shortening the action to a weekend, stripping out a lot of superfluous stuff and stuffing it full of much needed laughs. As the curtain rises to reveal a smattering of furniture and Perspex walls the enormous Lyttelton stage looks, well enormous, and you wonder how they will ever create the stifling tension of a group of people holed up together with raging emotions. This is going to drown them I thought, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; without the clutter you get to focus entirely on the people, allowing the actors to create buckets of tension and drama. The decision to strip back classic texts and present them in more powerful minimalist staging is all the rage, and what Ivo Van Hove has done for Arthur Miller, here Patrick Marber has done for Turgenev, and it is a huge success.
The story takes place in the sumptuous country home of Natalya (Amanda Drew), a confident and intimidating landowner who is bored with her husband. During this weekend an older neighbour Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) has coerced the local doctor (Mark Gatiss) to introduce him to the family so he may propose to Vera (Lily Sacofsky) the family ward. But Vera is in love with the handsome young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierrson) who himself is attracted to Natalya, as well as her maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete). Meanwhile the doctor has designs on Lizaveta a companion (Debra Gillett) while Rakitin (John Simm) a long-term friend of the family has nursed a love for Natalya for twenty years. The various permutations of these unrequited love stories are played out with plenty of confusion between love and lust, misunderstandings and a houseful of broken hearts by the end.
Bestriding it all are three outstanding performances from Drew, Gatiss and Simm who offer different but affecting insights into their characters. Drew’s Natalya is comfortable in her world as mistress of a large estate – and again the openness of the staging really emphasises the size of the house and land – while happily accepting the devoted attentions of the men around her, but like many Russian heroines suppressing a wilder nature. As the story evolves Drew is particularly impressive in subtly portraying her jealousy of Vera even when encouraging her into the arms of the man she wants for herself. And later in the play when she finally succumbs to her own passions Drew shows how its release completely breaks Natalya forcing her to give way to public emotion, something she could never have done as the play began.
Equally affecting is John Simm’s performance as the ardent long-term suitor without the slightest hope of victory. This Rakitin is a rational and intelligent man willing to accept a close friendship with Natalya rather than nothing at all, and Simm creates a man who it likeable and sympathetic. Each of the three central roles have their moment to shine and Simm’s comes in the Second Act where he too succumbs to 20 years of pain as he continues to counsel Natalya about her love for another man while clinging to a stolen moment between them years before, finally accepting it will never be repeated.
Gatiss, always a great character actor, excels here as Shpigelsky the local quack desperate for social advancement. His association with the ‘big house’ is reinforced by a comical attempt to woo the perplexed Lizaveta by listing his faults and expectations. In a scene not dissimilar to Mr Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennett that he’ll have her despite her inferiority, Gatiss’s doctor tries to strike a bargain with the companion while hilariously dealing with a bad back brought on my being on one knee. He is equally amusing in an earlier scene having drunk too much at dinner, late-night gossiping with the other guests. One of Gatiss’s greatest gifts as a comic actor is to suddenly show the pain beneath the surface which is used so poignantly here, giving the doctor’s character greater depth and winning the audience’s compassion.
It is a great cast who give a convincing sense of a busy country manor, although the character of the tutor that everyone is in love with seems a little flat, so it’s hard to see what all the ladies are so excited about. Similarly Natalya’s husband Arkady is currently an interesting sketch, and performed well by John Light, but seems quite under-used and it would be useful to learn a little more about their marriage to explain her frustrations. Nonetheless it is a wonderful couple of hours reinforced by Irene Bohan’s costumes and particularly Mark Thompson’s unusual but intriguing stage design which again feels so fresh. You may initially be confused by the hovering red door in Act One which comes to earth after the interval, but its physical purpose eventually makes sense as well as its role as a symbol of everyone’s passions which are eventually released.
Three Days in the Country is probably the best Russian play that I have seen, given real verve by Marber’s loose adaptation. If you like your Turgenev traditional and suffocating then this may be a bit radical, but it was a joy to see something that felt so light yet still created the right level of emotional drama. More than anything, the last few months have completely restored my faith in the National Theatre as a place for interesting and smart adaptations of classic plays. Whether the same can be said of any new writing remains to be seen, but with greater availability of lower priced tickets and an interesting new season from the autumn there is a lot to be excited about. The National is back in business indeed.
Three Days in the Country is at the National Theatre until 21 October. Tickets start at £15 and better seats are available at £20 from 1pm on Friday afternoons as part of the theatre’s Friday Rush initiative.