Turgenev’s masterpiece has lured many writers to take up the challenge of adapting it for their own times. In this fine National Theatre production, Patrick Marber has given us a very contemporary version which would work well as a TV drama. The story is distilled down – mostly to a series of two person encounters, though there are a number of splendid group confrontations. This means, of course, that the quality of the acting is what matters and the good news is that there is not a weak link in this production.
Amanda Drew plays Natalya, the woman whose magnetic appeal for three men drives the drama. Drew captures the sexual allure, the capriciousness, and the self–doubt that make her such a complex character and, in the brief moments at the end of the first half of the play when she holds her hand over a candle flame, her face fleetingly registers all these emotions, a wonderful moment. The superb John Simm plays Rakitin, the friend of her husband whose love she has toyed with for many years and whom she has summoned to the country estate where Natalya has developed a passion for an unsuitable newcomer, her son’s tutor. Rakitin’s struggle between his own hopeless passion and his wish to protect Natalya from the disaster her new love threatens to bring on her and her family, is splendidly portrayed. The scene where he lies to his friend Arkady, Natalya’s husband, about the reason for his wife’s increasing distress is brilliantly done and, as Arkady, John Light strikes just the right note of confused devotion and muscular charm. The smaller roles are also played with real style – a special mention for Mark Gatiss as the venal and calculating family doctor whose big moment was so funny that it almost derailed the flow of the main plot.
The set is very spare – no props other than some chairs and tables. There are a couple of lovely painted backdrops that suggest the rural beauty of provincial Russia, while the actors not involved in the action sit on chairs around the sides of the stage. The only jarring note is a strange red door that sometimes floats in the air above the stage and sometime descends to provide a doorway for the actors. There is some splendid singing from Cherrelle Skeete playing a maidservant but why is the language of the songs Russian when all the dialogue is English?
It is very clear why this play had such an impact on other Russian writers who followed Turgenev. By focussing the play so relentlessly on the shifting emotional currents that bring together, and drive apart, the characters, Marber has relinquished some of the context – the atmosphere of rural languor that some fans of Turgenev love. But he has intensified the emotional impact of the relationships which are at the core of this gripping play and that is a major plus point. This is a treat of an August opening when most theatres in London seem to concentrate on the holiday maker.