The Theatreguide.London Review
Gate Theatre Autumn 2009, January 2012
Adaptor Nancy Harris effectively translates Tolstoy's novella into theatrical terms in this all-but-solo show, but in the process loses Tolstoy's own intention while also missing out on other directions you sense the stage version could have gone.
The result is some excellent writing, some clever staging effects by director Natalie Abrahami, and just the vague shadows of what might have been.
As in the novella, a man on a train compulsively tells his story to other passengers (us), of how a marriage that had descended into routine changed when his musician wife began playing with another man, and he became convinced she was unfaithful, with tragic results.
Tolstoy's own comments on the book say that he intended it as a warning against erotic passion since that, which brought the married couple together, inevitably faded, leaving the husband with a disgust for what he imagined his wife was now feeling anew.
But while Harris includes the man's accounts of his early carnality and his revulsion at sexuality - 'brothels. Graveyards for the living. Like the opera' - it is the wit of such comments that registers, not any connection to the story that follows.
What one does sense possibly developing is either a small-scale version of Othello, of the little man driven by passions he can't understand to acts he wouldn't ordinarily be capable of, or a Poe-like vision of the frightening calm of the truly insane, as in 'The Cask of Amontillado.'
But neither Harris nor director Abrahami nor actor Hilton McRae takes us in any of those directions, leaving us watching the whole thing from the uninvolved outside. McRae plays the man with such blandness that he might be describing a routine day at work.
There is far too little sense of any passion wracking this man, either felt openly or repressed into madness, and so we are not guided toward either pity or fear.
Without any emotional involvement in the story, we are left to observe technical elements in the writing and staging, and there is indeed much to admire there.
At least in Harris's
translation the text is full of zingers like the brothel-opera line that
catch you up short with their Wildean wit and wisdom.
Here's the speaker on young women: 'Their mothers groom them, the dressmakers clothe them, the tutors teach them...all towards the one purpose. To attach themselves to men. No wonder they hate us.' Or on young men's wild oats: 'We aren't hurting anyone - us boys. Except the people we're hurting.'
Elsewhere an overdressed man is described as 'an embarrassment of effort,' and there are enough lines like that to keep you alert and appreciative throughout.
Aware that the story is built on a connection between music and passion, director Natalie Abrahami has snippets of Beethoven and others playing throughout, triggering and being triggered by the speaker's memory.
And she has the other two figures in the story - the wife and the other man - appear mystically through a scrim back wall, sometimes with almost subliminal brevity, as their images force their way into his consciousness. (Actors Tobias Beer and Sophie Scott have no lines, but pose and play violin and piano respectively.).
The device is so effective one can only wish it had been employed in service of a more emotionally evocative production.
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