Arcola Theatre Summer 2016
Leo Tolstoy's novella was written (his notes tell us) out of a revulsion against romantic love and sexual desire, and the conviction that they were the source of the greatest misery in most ordinary people's lives.
It is essentially the monologue of a man on a train, talking compulsively to fellow travellers, and so playwright Nancy Harris had little technical difficulty turning it into a solo performance piece.
(Actor Greg Hicks is supported by musicians Alice Pinto and Phillip Granell, who punctuate the monologue with occasional bits of Beethoven and original music by Harry Sever)
Whether Nancy Harris captured the tone and intention of the original is another question.
Seeing a 2009 production of the script with a weak (or weakly-directed) central performance I commented that it didn't seem to be about much of anything except the story itself, about a man who became convinced that his musician wife was having an affair with another musician and killed her.
(I don't apologise for the spoiler, because it is telegraphed long in advance, and really isn't what the play is about.)
In the hands of actor Greg Hicks and director John Terry the play comes closer to Tolstoy's intention of being a study in revulsion, but not so much at sex in general as at the man himself.
Hicks makes the man consumed by self-hatred and self-disgust – for his sexual urges, yes, but for just about everything else as well.
Even when he is being witty – and either Tolstoy or Harris gives him a Wildean flair with language – the barb always seems to turn back on himself.
On the education of 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.'
A problem with lines like that, or like his description of brothels as 'graveyards for the living. Like the opera' is that you may hear only the wit and not the pain and self-disgust.
But Greg Hicks makes sure that doesn't happen. However light, dismissive or matter-of-fact the speaker is (and he is each in turn), Hicks colours it all with a bitterness we may only slowly sense is all directed at himself.
Remembering how he fell in love, the man wonders at his wife-to-be's virginal innocence, but Hicks lets us see a resentment at the way it implicitly criticised his impurity.
When he describes how he perversely threw his wife and the other musician together, you sense that he is not a reliable narrator, and that what he chooses to remember as his own depravity may have been much simpler and more innocent.
Greg Hicks has the kind of face that looks troubled even when at rest, and when he chooses to sneer he could out-sneer Alan Rickman in his prime. All that is conveyed in his face – anger, disdain, repugnance, pain – is skilfully and movingly used by the actor to communicate the suffering of a man who believes that he deserves the suffering.
95 minutes may be a little too long for an actor, even one as powerful and magnetic as Greg Hicks, to sustain the psychological and emotional intensity of the script, and there are some lapses of energy in the last half-hour or so.
But this is certainly as powerful and riveting a solo show as you are likely to encounter this year.
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