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: Closer, Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

First performed at the National Theatre in 1997, Closer was written in a time when popular culture was teeming with studies of overly-sexed, overly-stressed, overly-self-obsessed people and their relationships. This was an era of This Life and Queer as Folk, TV programmes where the world for the under 35s was both hugely fun and horribly messy and hurtful.

Marber’s tale of sex and love has survived the best part of two decades better than many of us, in fact, in a time when internet dating and Tinder seem to magnify the differences between what men and women want, Closer could be seen as even more pertinent. In 20 years, men and women are still doing badly timed dances around each other because ultimately neither gender knows what beat we’re dancing.

Closer is about love, sex and London – and not the shiny Michelin star laden capital of the 21st century, but the slightly bleary eyed city that saw out the millennium. Against this slightly grubby background is this weary, crude and poignantly funny tale of four people trying to reconcile the ultimate mundanity of love. The two female leads were transformed into glamorous Americans in Steven Soderbergh’s 2004 film, but they make far more sense as spiky British women more used to failure.

Marber’s story directed by David Leveaux’s on Bunny Christie’s stark set should be a depressing watch – essentially, it’s saying, heterosexual men and women may be deeply attracted to each other, but they are doomed to misunderstand each other. But the script is shot full of enough wit and Leveaux keeps any arm-flailing at bay for it to be an absorbing and intelligent watch.

The four-hander follows (deeply, or just normally?) two flawed couples over several years, all grasping for love that they can never quite seize. Daniel Woolf  (Oliver Chris) is at once a hopeless romantic and an utter rat in the way these two characteristics are often flipsides of each other. He meets Alice Ayres (Rachel Redford), a young, beautiful orphan, when he scraps her off the street after she’s knocked down by a taxi. Dan, an obituary writer who dreams of becoming a novelist, takes her to hospital where Alice chooses to fall in love with him because he cuts the crusts off his sandwiches. He’s bewitched by her youth and kookiness and despite having a girlfriend, believes her to be the one. Alice is briefly treated by Larry (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist who, in one of the many coincidences the play hangs on, Dan will, a few years later, set up with Anna – who he is now in love with – via a very funny exchange in an internet chat room. Dan first met Anna when she was taking his picture for the sleeve of his forthcoming novel that he’s finally written it. As he is prone to, Dan has become infatuated with Anna and so begins a circle of obsession and attraction between the four characters.

The characters are pretty damning representation of the human race, but they are not cardboard cutout villains, their very human flaws don’t distract from the appeal and the brilliance of a script full of those moments that resonant so much that you want to punch the air and shout ‘Yes. This’.

Marber’s brutal dialogue requires some pretty robust acting and the cast largely handler the script with conviction. Nancy Carroll was captivating as Anna, whose brittle efficiency hides a vulnerability that Carroll’s expressive eyes give away and I loved Rufus Sewell as Larry, a nice comic cadence cutting through the self importance of the other characters.

The Donmar’s production of Closer was good enough that the play’s niggles (the idea that Anna wouldn’t run a mile from a strange man in an aquarium who calls her a “cum-hungry bitch” even if he did look like Rufus Sewell; the beauty of the two women being so central to the story; what do these people talk about when they’re not arguing or snogging?) didn’t grate. As the production comes to an end, it remains to be seen if Marber’s play can survive another 17 years will as much spirit.

Closer | Donmar Warehouse | Until 4 April 2015

by Suzanne Elliott