A month in the country can seem an interminably long time so full credit to Patrick Marber for condensing the visit to three days for his scintillating version of Turgenev’s 19th century classic story of frustration and disappointment.
Three Days In The Country positively bristles with the sort of pent-up emotions, sexual repression and obsessions that Tennessee Williams would exploit 100 years later.
The vast size of the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage, and a general lack of props to clutter up the place, adds to the illusion of space at the expansive Russian country estate run by the nice-but-dull Arkady (John Light).
But for all its size the place is a prison for his bored, sophisticated and well-bred wife, Natalya. She’s buried alive, trapped in a stifling, dispassionate marriage and set to suffer the same dismal fate as Chekhov’s stultified upper classes who inevitably find themselves consumed by tedium.
Marber’s interpretation of A Month In The Country takes the very best from the original and gives audiences an electrifying and passionate play with its cast delivering both nuanced performances and full-on physical comedy.
John Simm is outstanding as the tortured Rakitin who, through a twist of fate, saw his best friend walk off with the love of his life.
Rakitin has never settled and is always ready to attend his beloved Natalya. His unrequited love, pain etched on his face and in his eyes, is masked by convention.
Finally he declares himself but it’s too little, too late and his grand speech moves only the audience.
The immaculately-dressed and urbane, Simm is armed with a ready quip and caustic remark, to ward off any unhappiness or discontent in Natalya’s life. He’s flirtatious, attentive. Everything her hard-working husband is not.
But he can’t stop her ultimate betrayal when she becomes infatuated with a young and ambitious tutor, hired for her son.
The atmosphere builds slowly into what turns out, by the second act, to be something of a bodice-ripper. Every character appears flawed, unhappy, and unfulfilled. None are particularly likable.
The story is set in the sweltering heat of the summer. But while temperatures soar the atmosphere in the house is in the doldrums.
Various members of the Arkady household are sitting around, playing cards, reading, passing the time. God, it’s dull. No wonder a storm is brewing.
Natalya has summoned the sycophantic Ratikin from the city to inject a bit of culture and life into gathering.
But it is the handsome teacher, Belyaev (Royce Pierreson playing the strong, silent type who says more with a fixed stare or glower than with any well-written dialogue) who provides the ultimate distraction.
The chatelaine, her pretty young ward, Vera (Lily Sacofsky), and a maid, all falling for his manly charms.
Mark Gatiss is super value for money as the country quack, Shpigelsky, who outwardly waits on the family, a retainer who dispenses drugs and advice with a smile, but who secretly despises them, their lifestyle, and their class.
The second act starts with a change of pace when brooding emotion gives way to hilarity.
The seemingly jovial doc asks lady’s companion Lizaveta (Debra Gillett) to marry him but the proposal, such as it is, doesn’t start well when he puts his back out (I empathised as am also suffering) and he is prostrate on the floor.
Gatiss milks the situation for laughs and seemed disappointed not to be applauded for his considerable efforts to right himself.
When he finally gets back on his feet he produces a list of his qualities and his demands. It’s not so much a romantic proposition as a business transaction but Gillet and he make a splendid double act.
He later gives a superb drunk routine which reminds just how talented he is as a comedian, as well as writer and lover of horror.
Amanda Drew’s performance as Natalya is engrossing. She’s passionate, consumed, and obsessed, trapped in a gilded cage by her circumstances, but I still baulk at her hysterical breakdown after failing to get what she wants. She’s far too well bred to throw herself on the floor like a petulant child.
And what of Mark Thompson’s fresh but austere set which sees the cast sitting onstage when they’re not “on” (very fringe)?
I rather liked the emptiness of it, and thought the video back cloth worked well, but wondered at the significance of the red door suspended above the stage.
It becomes clear later in the production and it turns out to be a bit of a tease, a portal to forbidden love and desire. Very Fifty Shades….
If only more Russian drama was as absorbing and fervent as this.
Three Days in the Country runs until October 21.
Three Days In The Country
Patrick Marber slims down and exposes the raw passion in Three Days In The Country, his scintillating version of a Turgenev classic, that opened at the National Theatre this week.