Tag Archives: Patrick Marber

Exit the King – National Theatre

Exit the King - National Theatre

This week in quite different productions two Kings will be forced to confront the limits of their power, question whether they are fit to govern the realm and contemplate their own mortality for the first time. On both occasions what the audience sees will be the death pangs of their reign, the final struggle for autonomy and influence as they fruitlessly cling to power while those around them slowly withdraw support for their declining monarch, abandoning them to their inevitable fate. With press performances for the emotive King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre and the National Theatre’s quirky take on Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King falling on successive nights, thematically there is considerably more that unites than divides these beleaguered princes.

Absurdist dramas are not quite so in vogue as they once were, and while the odd production pops-up at pub theatres and fringe venues, these 1950 and 60s classics rarely make it to the main stages. Modern attempts to recreate the anarchic oddity of their predecessors can feel rather forced or too consciously zany as the rather tiresome Pity provided this week, yet the best absurdist work succeeds and survives because beneath the strange surface it has something important to say about the state of the world or the human condition. Exit the King plays with our fears of death and the harsh inevitability of our demise; prince or pauper, it comes to us all regardless.

The 1950-70s were a hugely experimental time in European drama, and the era has left us with some of the twentieth-century’s best-known dramatists – Pinter, Beckett and Ionesco. But the work can be difficult to watch today with its loops of logic and flights of fancy that can seem daunting and incomprehensible in our relatively conventional West End structures. Pinter’s focus on tone rather than plot can be confusing, while the increasingly elaborate chaos or surreal lack of purpose in Beckett and Ionesco can make it hard to see their point when nothing appears to happen. Fortunately, Exit the King is one of Ionesco’s more straightforward stories with a handy time-limited structure that drives the play.

King Berenger wakes up one morning, over 400 years into his reign, to discover this is the day he will die. Having lived a vibrant life with two wives, both still present at court, and a series of great victories to look back on Berenger refuses to believe this is his last day on earth. Surrounded by his regal first wife Maguerite, and the more vibrant (and much younger) second wife Marie, as well as his physician, cleaner and guard, the King will pass through the various stages of acceptance before the fatal moment arrives, but will he go quietly?

Known for his emotional reinvigoration of the classics including Don Juan in Soho and Three Days on the Country alongside his new work as a writer, Patrick Marber directs with skill, favouring the more macabre and foreboding aspects of the plot over its sillier elements.  And in doing so, Marber highlights the parallels with King Lear. This faux medieval world also reflects a view of power that Shakespeare also knew, of monarchs divinely appointed by God, sitting above the petty rules of the common man. They command, control and shape society around them and believe themselves capable of fantastical acts. When Berenger at lasts realises his powers are waning, Ionesco represents this as a loss of magic, and the protagonist is no longer able to command the air to move or someone’s hat to rise at will. Like Lear, stripped of the ceremony and mystique of kingship all his frailties are exposed and the subsequent decline is rapid.

Both men call upon the natural world as a symbol of their lost power, failing to stem the tides that will engulf them and suddenly buffeted by the same winds as ordinary mortals, no longer shielded by their divine status. We see a physical crack appear in the wall of the palace which only widens as the time draws near, and although Berenger may not be physically cast out as Lear is, in the same way the world starts to recede from him as we hear that the cessation of his reign has driven people from the land, an empty kingdom with a dying King as dispossessed and purposeless as the wandering Lear. And like his Shakespearian counterpart, this causes Berenger to enter a kind of madness, no longer himself as he grapples for the first time not just with his own humanity but the imminent termination of it, as initial denial gives ways to resignation and despair.

Marber has taken quite an interesting approach that retains some of the extremes of behaviour and occasionally the daffy moments that earn some laughs, but he weighs it down with a darker overlay of fear and inevitability. It’s absurd yes, but also unsettling so the humour becomes wry and even uncomfortable as a once regal symbol becomes a frightened man begging for more life. Marber manages the pitch fairly well which veers continually from Berenger’s deep exploratory monologues as he tries to make sense of his life and imminent death, to the brusque management of his final hour by Maguerite, desperate to get on with it.

Designer Anthony Ward has set this somewhere between the aesthetic of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts and a slightly heightened mittle-European kingdom, full of medieval allusion, hierarchy and glamour. There is a slight seediness to the visuals which constantly, and deliberately, undercut the regality of the court, everything seems as though it has lived a tad too long with the King himself a vision of grubby excess and entitlement, as though his inevitable demise is now long overdue. It purposefully avoids generating any sympathy for the characters, reinforcing Ionesco’s implication that this is a death that needs to happen. And for the most part it is simply staged with a cracked stone backdrop bearing the royal crest and representing the palace with various hidden doors and window panels that allow Marber to vary the location and height of the production.

As King Berenger, Rhys Ifans turns up the volume on the grimy majesty of the King, not to the point of caricature, but enough to create a slightly off-kilter tone. His monarch is almost distasteful to look at, decked in pyjamas with an overly painted face which as the performance unfolds becomes caked and broken by sweat. Ifans shows the swings of mood from angry determination that he still has power to monumental self-pity and depression, raging and cursing against his fate. But he’s never really pitiable, and even as Ifans holds the room in the numerous soliloquies as Berenger tries to sum up his life, achievements and fears, Ifans ensures he remains an interesting but perishing figure, there to represent Ionesco’s theme on life clinging far beyond its natural expiration.

Equally interesting is the role of Queen Marguerite whose blank honest continually intrudes on her former husband’s self-pity, hastening the King’s end with frequentreminders of the ticking clock. Dressed by Ward, Indira Varma presents a stylish and stately figure, a 1960s Princess Margaret meets Elizabeth Taylor cross in a beautifully-tailored black velvet gown. Yet Varma offers a complex and cleverly ambiguous figure whose own motivations in the management of this death are highly questionable. Why is Queen Marguerite so keen to tell Berenger the truth, is it an act of kindness to prepare him for the worst or does she intend to profit from his passing? Varma visible scoffs every time her rival Marie speaks, showing considerable contempt for her younger and more romantic replacement, and although she allows everyone to moan and wail without interruption, she instantly snaps the subject back to the inevitability of the death on their conclusion. She seems wise and sensible, a much needed refresh in the kingdom, but a giveaway line perhaps in the play’s closing moments as Marguerite eventually guides Berenger towards the light, divesting himself of his body and worldly goods, where she instructs him to give the kingdom clutched in his hand to her – part of the ritual of death or a genuine power grab? Varma never let’s you know for sure, which makes the performance all the more intriguing.

Supporting the leads, Amy Morgan’s Marie is a flouncing French princess, all delicacy and devotion to her ailing husband, preferring to remind him of their happy past than prepare him for the future. Adrian Scarborough never lets you down, playing the comic oddity of the Doctor with a side-line in astronomy and Merlin impressions with verve, while Debra Gillett as Juliette the maid and Derek Griffiths as the Guard making the court announcements well utilise their smaller roles as equally peculiar inhabitants of the strange court of King Berenger. Together, they represent the various classes of an almost feudal structure that flows down from the King, through the middle-class professionals to the working classes at the bottom, a microcosm of the wider society. Ionesco’s point is that fawn and then flee as they do in the face of the King’s demise, death is a classless pursuer and it will be their turn soon enough.

Translated by Simon Scarfield, like much absurdist work of its time, Exit the King is less concerned with plot than with exploring themes of human behaviour. Patrick Marber’s engaging production builds on the central strangeness of Ionesco’s work, attempting to break down our ongoing battle with the idea of death and why no one wants to face it until they have to. The characters may turn away leaving Marguerite to conduct Berenger’s final moments, but would she be so composed when her turns comes? The scale of that question is explored in the way Marber, Ward and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone manage the Olivier stage throughout the production, carving its depth in half for much of the action, with a small apron into the audience, only revealing its full extent, grandness and gravity at the point the King eventually exits, making for a notable conclusion.

With a few days before press night, Marber’s production will inevitably sharpen and while Exit the King takes a more linear approach to storytelling than similar work of its era, the plot itself is deliberately secondary to the themes and behaviours presented, which can be both testing and disconcerting. The association with King Lear is an interesting (and timely) one, allowing West End audiences to see both shows in quick succession and appreciate their grand discussions of mortality all the more. Ultimately, they tell us that whoever you are in life and whatever your achievements, the conclusion is the same – we may never be ready or brave enough to face it but, in the persons of Edgar and (hopefully) Maguerite, we can try to leave good behind.

Exit the King is at the National Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Don Juan in Soho – Wyndhams Theatre

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho by Helen Maybanks

‘Satan in a Savile Row Suit’, Patrick Marber’s leading man is devious, debauched and morally bankrupt, without a single care for anything except the pursuit of his own pleasure and without a single scruple of conscience for all the people he hurts along the ways. He is all these things, a man we are warned right at the top of the show not to love, a man with no soul and seemingly no heart to save even himself. But he’s also irresistible, living, by his own admission, as a man in his purest natural state, away from the façade of modern life, driven entirely by instinct and want and desire. He is Don Juan.

We are fascinated by villains, by people who live to extremes in a way none of us would dare. We baulk at the outrageousness of their lifestyle while inwardly admiring the sheer bravado of their choices. And deep down it’s all about our relationship with morality, where it comes from – either socially constructed or religiously imposed – and how it changes as society evolves, which explains the continual revivals of plays about Don Juan and his counterpart Faustus, and it is no coincidence in our more than troubled modern times that both have been seen in London’s playhouses numerous times in the past couple of years.

Marber wrote Don Juan in Soho a decade ago and has updated it slightly for this wonderful new production which has its press night at the Wyndhams Theatre tomorrow. Before we meet the man himself the audience is offered a none-to-flattering character sketch by his Butler/ Chauffeur, Stan, who waits in the lobby while “DJ” is in the penthouse with a Croatian model. Cheating on his wife of only two weeks, this is a man whose appetites are rapacious, having worked his way through three women a day for twenty years, what follows are a series of comic scenarios as Don Juan pursues his need for wine and women. But high on drugs in Soho one night he thinks a statue has come to life warning him he has one more day to live. Will he repent at last?

This new production, which Marber also directs, is a riot, full of life and full of fight. This Don Juan is not a man who apologises or kowtows to social influence but fights every second for his right to do whatever he pleases, and between scenes Marber fills the stage with swirling projections, light, music and colour, with images of Soho flashing onto the screens. For Don Juan this is his life, a constant sensory experience, the only thing he craves to keep him alive.

Yet Anna Fleischel’s multi-purpose set brings out a battle between old and new, tradition and modernity, tapping into a single melancholy moment as Don Juan half regrets that Soho is not the decadent place it once was. The worn marbled effect of the tomb-like rooms reflects Don Juan’s moral decay and the ultimate journey to the grave that awaits us all. Even in the park scene he is surrounded by mildewed benches and cold grey statues. His experiences may be explosively colourful but when they stop, all that’s left is a dark emptiness – a truth about himself Don Juan never wants to face but also accepts.

Tennant’s glorious performance leaves us in no doubt that Don Juan is not a man to feel any sympathy for, someone who will do anything to anyone so long as he has a good time – no regrets, no guilt and absolutely no shame. This is an interesting role for Tennant because one of his hallmarks as an actor is finding the humanity and sensitivity in his characters, creating a layered understanding of why they behave as they do. But Don Juan is without those kinds of depths, he is a lothario living entirely on the surface and has no moral compass of any kind, which is a different kind of challenge for actor who usually conveys depth so well. Instead he revels in the gluttony of Don Juan’s sexual escapades with some beautifully timed comic moments, particularly in a notorious but shockingly hilarious scene in a hospital waiting room which has to be seen to believed.

And there’s lots to admire in the pure certainty of Tennant’s leading man; he doesn’t swagger artfully so much as stumble from each lust-fuelled incident to the next, often looking wrecked from his activities but unable to stop himself or others from pursing the next opportunity however immoral or inappropriate. And Tennant lures you in before pulling the rug from under you – as Stan warns us he would – with some deeply dubious games like attempting to bribe a devout man to sully the name of his God. There is some nuance of course and Don Juan clearly fears his foretold death but not enough to go against his own nature and change his lifestyle – however unpleasant, he is always entirely conscious of what he is and unyieldingly true to it.

But best of all is the complete blankness with which he receives the opinions of others, particularly his wife and father, who tell him in detail how badly he has behaved and the pain he has caused. Lesser actors would have to prove they were reacting with a head shake or eye roll, but Tennant receives each lambast without expression and perfectly still, as if every word were flowing right over him without making the slightest ripple. It’s very skilled work to convey so much without a flicker, but none of it touches him and it speaks volumes about his lack of morality.

Marber has added some great up-to-date references to Trump which get several knowing laughs, while Tennant has a couple of fabulous comic monologues to rant about the state of the world and people’s need to be seen and heard at all times doing the most mundane things. These are few, and perhaps are not entirely plot centred, but they are an excoriating indictment of modern life and when Tennant is in full flight you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Adrian Scarborough is the perfect foil as Don Juan’s long-standingly exasperated companion and documenter of his many amours. Stan is our way into the production and in some sense its moral heart as he tries to extricate himself from Don Juan’s employ. Overwhelmed by his Master’s deceits. Scarborough shows us that the marriage, contracted merely for seductive purposes and then cast aside, feels like a final straw but that Stan is more than a cipher for Don Juan’s story, having his own frustrated desires and demands, unable to retrieve the £27,000 in owed wages or start a family. Stan talks directly to the audience on a couple of occasions warning us not to be drawn in, but at the same time Stan is us, repelled and annoyed but endlessly fascinated by Don Juan’s seductive charms.

The surrounding cast taking on a number of roles is more mixed and at times quite stagey. There are plenty of women who pass through Don Juan’s life during the play, none of whom really make their mark, which seems to be a deliberate choice, reflecting his own lack of engagement with them. Danielle Vitalis as DJ’s wife Elvira has the difficult task of playing earnest and innocent in a world of louche so can seem a little stilted, but Gawn Grainger has a small, enjoyable role as Don Juan’s buffoon parent disgusted by his son but as easily fooled by his entreaties as everyone else in a very fine comic scene.

Marber’s production feels like the cousin of Jamie Lloyd’s Faustus from 2016 with Kit Harrington that tackled similar themes about morality, death and the individual in modern times, but with a deliberately distinctive visual style that was hugely divisive. It’s probably reasonable to say if that wasn’t your cup of tea, then this might not be either and it’s likely to split the critics. As a health warning there’s lots of swearing, drug-taking, sex, violence and fantasy elements including a surprising rickshaw moment that anyone who’s seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on stage might appreciate. It was clear from the interval chat that some people found the content difficult but if this sounds like a perfect recipe for a night at the theatre then this is the show for you.

Don Juan in Soho is crude, lewd, shocking, morally skewed, vicious and frankly lots of fun. At times genuinely hilarious, innovative and exuberant, it’s a show that zips along with its protagonists need to keep moving, but there is a shadow of nostalgia, of a happier past that cannot be reclaimed that keeps this from being all farce and fluff. Tennant’s Don Juan may be repugnant and unsalvageable, and despite all the warnings you don’t want to love him… you just do.

Don Juan in Soho is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 June and tickets start at £10 for standing seats. An age recommendation of 16+ has been added to the show and most seats at the Wyndham’s offer a good view. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hedda Gabler – National Theatre

hedda-gabler-national-theatre

“Academics are no fun” according to Hedda Gabler in Patrick Marber’s modern reworking of Ibsen’s famous play, but they are dependable, reliable and safe, so despite years of flirtation and numerous suitors she marries one because it was time. This year we have seen some particularly outstanding female performances; Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea and Billy Piper in Yerma were two of the finest portrayals not just in 2016 but any year, and with a couple of weeks to go Ruth Wilson joins them with her take on the infamous heroine.

Ivo van Hove is one of the few theatre directors who is as well-known as his productions. Much like Robert Icke, Carrie Cracknell and Jamie Lloyd, his style is distinctive, recognisable and notably innovative – incidentally this production of Hedda is sharing the Lyttelton stage with Icke’s astonishing version of The Red Barn (which earned my first five star professional review) staring Mark Strong who’s last stage appearance was coincidentally in van Hove’s game-changing A View From the Bridge. To Hedda Gabler, van Hove brings his ability to deconstruct classic plays and sweep away preconceptions to create slicing visions of quite modern people engaged in battles against their own destruction.

Hedda Gabler is a much admired local society beauty who surprises the town by marrying quiet up-and-coming academic Tesman. The play opens as the couple return home from a 6 month honeymoon and research trip to the house Hedda once claimed she always wanted and to face the men she once dallied with including Judge Brack who continues to visit in the hope of an opportunity.  As Hedda begins to suffocate, rival academic Lovborg returns to town with his lover Mrs Elvsted, casting doubt on Tesman’s academic future, and when Hedda decides to alleviate her boredom by meddling with the relationships around her, she brings only destruction.

van Hove’s production is strikingly modern from the off, and instantly sets it apart from earlier period-set versions – including Sheridan Smith’s excellent take at the Old Vic in 2012. We’re used to seeing Ibsen in claustrophobic rooms overstuffed with furniture that mimics the oppression of his characters, but here van Hove instead introduces a virtually bare city apartment, designed by Jan Versweyveld, suggesting both the current poverty of the newlyweds unable to furnish it to the standards Hedda expected, and reiterating the idea that it is the moral and emotional lives of the characters that oppresses them not their décor. They would be equally tormented in any room and it is credit to van Hove and particularly to Wilson that they manage to fill the cavernous Lyttleton stage with Hedda’s interior life.

Occasionally referred to as the female Hamlet, this version departs somewhat from the idea of inevitable doom and instead slowly charts the descent of a smart woman, used to controlling and toying with those around her who stubbornly refuses to help herself when several opportunities for escape present themselves. She is more than merely a bird in a cage, but someone who has built that cage for herself and (almost morally) refuses to go back on her word, accepting the consequences. So, the play’s conclusion comes not from certainty but after a moment of weakness is politically outmanoeuvred and backed into a corner by fear of the kind of public scandal which has kept her marriage intact.

Wilson’s Hedda is complex and fascinating, managing to tread the line between alluring and repellent, victim of circumstance and active agent in events. During the first half we see her frustration build and snap; she’s barely civil to her husband and his aunt, rapidly wheedles the truth with faux friendship from Mrs Elvsted and relishes the moments of flirtation with Lovborg and Brack. Coming back from a dull honeymoon, Wilson shows Hedda slowly resuming her former, rather vicious and arrogant, character and belief in her power over others, so at the interval she feels emboldened by the havoc she has unleashed.

In the second half of the evening we see just how wrong she has been, so here Wilson is able to display Hedda’s delusion and vulnerability – particularly as a supposedly strong woman that never leaves that empty house. Her belief in her irresistibility comes crashing down as both her liaisons prove, in her words, “vulgar” and still fails to realise that her husband is the only man who genuinely loved her unconditionally. Meanwhile the small victory she claims in the first half over Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted is brutally revisited upon her and, on stage throughout, Wilson conveys every nuance of Hedda’s suffering and loss of spirit as fate turns against her. It is an excellent and meaningful performance that doesn’t try to make you like her, but compels you to watch her nonetheless.

Wilson is given excellent support by the rest of the cast, particularly Rafe Spall as Brack. Often portrayed as a bearded old man, this young Judge is slick, confidence and right out of some sinister gangster movie. Spall is all charm and determination as he oils is way around Hedda in the early scenes, but not put off by her refusals to betray her marriage, he is also a predator and waits for the perfect opportunity to bite. The chemistry with Wilson crackles as they flirt dangerously with one another, which is a high point of the show.

Likewise there is considerable chemistry with Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg, a man driven by the discovery of his own genius and the fruition of his ideas. Along with Mrs Elvsted – an occasionally stilted but felt Sinead Matthews – they are the counterpoint to Hedda and Tesman’s relationship, one built on mutual understanding, support and respect which Hedda decides to destroy. Poldark fans will recognise Kyle Soller’s Tesman, a character not that dissimilar to Francis who also married a women who didn’t love him, but here Soller retains his natural American accent which does stand out a bit, especially as the narrative has all the characters originating in the same town. Nonetheless, Tesman is given a parallel life of his own driven by academia and the strong bonds with his aunts while being in thrall to Heddar which Soller conveys really well.

Throughout van Hove creates drama and tension while Marber cleverly plays with metaphors of emptiness and dawning light. The bare apartment and repeated references to whether Hedda is pregnant or not imply an emptiness inside her that cannot be filled, and here An D’Huys costumes puts Hedda initially in a visible silk slip shrouded in a black dressing gown suggesting her suppressed sexuality, but later in the play the dressing gown is removed as the real Hedda emerges – as slippery and thin as her costume. Linked to this is the use of sunlight in the room which Hedda initially reacts badly to and tries to shade, but at the start of part two as her real self emerges the stage is bathed in a bronze sunrise as she flirts heatedly with Brack, and then as events close in around her, she becomes entirely entombed in a dark and falsely lit world.

The National Theatre has hit a purple patch and this version of Hedda Gabler rounds off a fantastic year of shows that, after a lengthy dry spell, has ensured its back at the top of its game. The attraction of visionary directors like Cracknell, Icke and van Hove has given momentum to its programme of new and classic productions that are not just good quality but also innovative and appealing for new audiences. Marber’s translation of Hedda Gabler feels fresh and dangerous, and while the strange decision to use occasional music to underscore Hedda’s depression jars – and is something Wilson manages perfectly well on her own – this memorable production adds one final flourish to a year of great female performances.

Hedda Gabler is at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. Tickets start at £15 and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets to sold out productions for the following week at £20 –  1pm every Friday. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Three Days in the Country – National Theatre

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.


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