Theatre Review: Three Days in the Country, the Lyttelton, National Theatre

Patrick Marber’s retelling of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country is witty and elegant, full of gags and Russian angst

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin ©Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin © Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country is Patrick Marber’s reboot of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, the action condensed into three days and this National Theatre production cut to two hours 15 minutes  versus the Russian playwright’s bum-numbing four.

Set in a grand country estate, the home of rich landowner Arkady (John Light), in the mid 19th century, Three Days in the Country has all the ingredients for a pre-revolutionary Russian tale of heartbreak and woe.  Class division? Check. Unrequited love? By the bucket load. A big house in the country, a weapon and an interloper whose thrown a spanner into the works? Da, da, da.

A languid air hangs over the stage, created here by Neil Austin’s lighting and Mark Thompson’s painted backdrop and spacious set, but behind this seemingly tranquil facade lie deep passions, betrayals and unhappiness. What, you thought a piece of Russian literature was going to be lighthearted and frivolous?

The outsider who is the catalyst for trouble is Belyaev, the handsome young tutor to Kolya, the son of Arkady and his restless wife Natalya (Amanda Drew). His arrival puts the household in a tizz and causes a fatal rift between Natalya and her 17-year-old ward, Vera (a brilliant stage debut by Lily Sacofsky) as they both fall in love with this enigmatic young man.

Also court in Cupid’s crossfire is an old family friend, Rakitin (John Simm), who has nursed a deep love for Natalya for 20 long years. Simm is excellent in the role giving a wonderfully composed performance that captures Rakitin’s bitterness, pain and desperation with real feeling.  

Despite the rather bleak path the story weaves (although compared to Chekhov this is Neighbours) there is a light touch to Marber’s witty script and the modern cadence to the dialogue gives Turgenev’s tale a fresh edge and a big dollop of humour. Mark Gatiss as the hopeless doctor, Shpigelsky, turns in a particularly fine comic performance that produces the funniest scene of the play, collapsing with backache during a bluff  proposal of marriage to Debra Gillett’s Lizaveta who was Gatiss’s comedy equal in a scene that threatened to steal the show. A less arthritic audience might have been rolling in the aisles.

Beautifully acted with great subtlety and space, Three Days in the Country is a lovely production that’s nicely paced and understated with just enough heart and soul.

Three Days in the Country | Lyttelton Theatre | Until October 21 2015

Theatre Review: Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse; Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

The hottest tickets in London town for the past few months have been for plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years.

Of course it helps that most of these sold out, selling-on-eBay-for-£2000-a-pop shows feature handsome famous men taking on some of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles (although even David Tennant in his now ended run at the Barbican may have struggled to make soppy sap Richard II meaty). But whether it’s prose or pecs drawing the crowds and winning the critics, there’s no denying the pull of Will.

My weekend was bookended by two very different Shakespeare productions. The first was the much talked about Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse starring the much talked about Tom Hiddleston. Since beginning its run in December it’s has had some quarters in such a tizz that people have been prepared to spend a huge amounts of farthings for a ticket for this sold out run.

There’s not a lot I can add to the chorus of Coriolanus praise; it’s every bit as powerful, thrilling and exciting as the critics have said. It’s a physical, visceral, brutal production that also has moments of reflection and humour. It’s stark simplicity and the almost post-apocalyptic feel of the set and costumes reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios production of Macbeth last year, although Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a far greater force than James McAvoy‘s rather lacklustre Scottish murderer.

Hiddleston could stand on stage in the humble smock he’s forced to wear after Caius’ one-man victory in Coriolis and still emit a room-captivating magnetism. But he doesn’t rest on his charismatic laurels, giving us a soldier who is far more than a sword brandishing brute. That said, he does angry very well; he’s so intimidating as a thoroughly pissed off newly-elected senator unable to engage in – or even injure the idea of – winning the hearts and minds of the dirty masses that he had me agreeing with him about this “us and them” business.

Although he does a damn good job of trying to steal it, this isn’t entirely Hiddleston’s show. Deborah Findlay is wonderfully, almost sinisterly, controlling as Caius’ overbearing, power lusty mother Volumnia who discovers the hard way that second hand heroism is great until your son gets kicked out of Rome. Shakespeare’s comedy characters are sometimes the least funny people in his plays, happily in Mark Gatiss’ Menenius Agrippa this is not the case. He manages to be languid and amusing, but also subtle and sensitive, avoiding caricature pitfalls. Hadley Fraser does a good job as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, playing up the lustiness of Shakespeare’s verse like a desperate man who knows he’s out of his depth (and league).

As Caius’ wife Virgilia, Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen has little to do but look sad, sew and stroke Coriolanus’ face when his mum isn’t looking, but not all of Shakespeare’s women are quite so one note. Over on the other side of the river at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Eileen Atkins delivered a much more sedate, but no less moving evening  bringing some of Shakespeare’s more vibrant female characters to life with a one woman performance as legendary actress Ellen Terry.

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is every bit as captivating and arresting as Atkins’ performance and the candle lit theatre was the perfect setting for this wonderful, if too brief, production that highlighted the awesomeness of some of Shakespeare’s female characters that are so often dismissed (including by myself) as insipid and weak.

The quiet courage, quick wit and intelligence of, amongst others, Juliet, Desdemona and Beatrice was brought to mesmorising life by Atkins, delivering an amalgamation of two of Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women while weaving into them some of their greatest speeches as well as dropping tantalising details of Terry’s glamorous life as a Victorian stage actress.

Shakespeare’s famous speeches were so comfortable in Atkins’ mouth and she was such an engaging presence that it was a real wrench when she backed slowly off the small stage to Ophelia’s final speech “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night”.

But it’s always good to keep your audience wanting more; Shakespeare knew the secret so well that we’re still wanting more and more of him, lapping up his words four centuries since they were first written.

 by Suzanne Elliott