The play formerly known as a A Month in the Country by Turgenev now arrives dragged up as Three Days in the Country by Patrick Albert Crispin Marber which teasingly suggests it might be about a tenth the length of the original version.
Sadly it’s not of course. Though this pared down version does come in at a mere 2 hours 15 minutes which is one of the more positive things Phil has to say about it. But that’s slightly more than he can say about Mr Turgid-enough’s original which he saw over 20 years ago and suffered substantial ennui even though it featured the rather starry line up of Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes.
Natalya (Amanda Drew) is a tedious, bored, fickle drama queen unhappily married to a rich landowner Arkady (John Light, formerly Mr Neve Campbell in real life), yet for some peculiar reason is admired by others including family friend Rakitin (John Simm). She instead sets her cougarish cap at her son’s new tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierreson) who initially appears to reciprocate the interest. Though he, in turn, whilst also attracting the attentions of Natalya and Arkady’s ward Vera (Lily Sacofsky), is drawn to the household maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete). Perhaps he appreciates her propensity to break into song during scene changes.
Meanwhile a morose doctor (Mark Gatiss) is on the cusp of proposing to the family retainer Livaveta (Debra Gillett, Mrs Marber in real life) who finds music, alcohol and snuff essential to her spinsterly well being. Then there’s a German tutor Schaaf, who Phil could empathise with when he fell asleep on the sofa with a wine glass in his hand. He’s performed by Gawn Grainger who is Mr Zoë Wanamaker in real life. Oh and there’s a rich bumbling neighbour Belyaev (Nigel Betts), who misguidedly believes he can win the hand of the youthful Vera. Got that? No? Don’t worry about it. We lost interest very early on.
So, this was the first preview and slack is being cut here, but Act 1 felt like a lot of rather disparate elements struggling to find a cohesive whole. When Simm struck a pose with a pot of glue (don’t ask) Phil realised it was just thing the play needed to hold it together.
Mark Thompson has neatly sidestepped the silver birch design cliche of Russian dramas by providing an abstract set of perspex panels which merely hint at the ubiquitous trees. The heavy-looking panels are suspended at different heights (along with a mysterious floating red door) and worrying about one of them falling and decapitating one of the cast kept Phil awake enough to get him through to the interval.
And we must mention the chairs around the edge of the performance area. Haven’t we got over that over-used idea yet? Mr Marber is directing his own work here and it’s a gimmick Phil never wants to see utilised on a stage again. The cast sit on the chairs and watch the inaction until required to perform, so, when someone shouts “Get the doctor!” one of them walks right past him as they scurry off into the exposed wings to fetch him. Phil wanted to do a panto shout out “But he’s behind you!”.
It may have not had much to beat but Act 2 is considerably better. Gatiss’ proposal – as he contorts with back pain – to Mrs Marber is a hoot. Gillett can disprove any accusations of nepotism (should there be any); she holds her own against Mr Gatiss and all but walks away with the comedy turn of the evening.
And for those wondering (as we did) why a National Theatre production is in conjunction with Dame Sonia Friedman Productions, this was apparently originally commissioned as a West End vehicle for Nicole Kidman. Seems she had a lucky escape.