Brian Friel's extended life story of two Chekhov characters - Sonya from ‘Uncle Vanya’ and Andrey from ‘The Three Sisters’ – whilst in many ways endearing ultimately is bland and prosaic. What lovers of Checkov would not be interested in taking a sneak view through the periscope of time and focus upon the lonely Sonja and the cuckold hectored Andrey’s chance meeting in a café in Moscow in the early 1920’s? Lamentably, what we see are two characters frozen in time and totally isolated from the world around them.
Chekov’s plays are fabricated around the languid environment of Russian landowners, and of how these landowners struggle to find meaning and purpose to their doleful existence. Seeing how two of these characters fared after the Russian Revolution of 1917 would seem a fascinating exercise. Have they been invigorated by this monumental event in either a positive or negative manner? Has it provided them with new hope or further deepened their despair?
Sadly, we will never know from Friel’s frivolous mirage-like encounter. In this Russia there appears to have been no Bolshevik revolution, no social changes, life continues for these characters in its ever-meaningless drudgery in which hope can only be held onto, at least for Sonya, by iron-willed fortitude. Chekov has already beautifully portrayed everything we need to know about these characters with his plaintive shades of perception. Friel merely ages them.
Sonya is sat at a table in a café in Moscow, surrounded by paperwork concerning her family’s estate. Totally preoccupied she fails at first to notice Andrey when he enters the cafe, or to recognise him from their encounter the previous evening. Andrey re-introduces himself and the two politely share a table and begin to engage in conversation.
From this exchange we learn about the death of Uncle Vanya bought on by a stroke just a year or two after we last saw him exhausted by his obsession for Yelena. Mikhail Astrov -who is now married to Yelena, is once again “caught up in schemes for saving the world". Sonja is still in love with Mikhail and continues toiling endlessly to keep her family’s estate in profit whilst clinging on to her gospel of fortitude. Andrey has been deserted by his wife Natalya, and his sister Masha committed suicide after losing Vershinin.
Andrey initially lies to Sonya about his reasons for being in Moscow. It is understandable that he should want to paint a picture of pretence with which to conceal his misfortune. Meanwhile Sonja too projects a false persona with which to conceal her own loneliness. Slowly the two reveal their true situation and for a short time they provide each other with some warmth and companionship before their history catches up with them and they pass like two ships in the night, both lost in a sea of emptiness.
Penelope Wilton gives a graceful performance as the self-controlled Sonya; she wraps herself in a mantle of spinsterhood without any cries for pity, a restrained performance that is true to the credo of fortitude her character seeks refuge in. John Hurt is wonderful as the lonely Andrey who begins to reveal his life to Sonya. He looks every bit the man who has been deserted by his wife and who has lost contact with his adult children, yet despite his lonesomeness there is a warmth and gentlenessabout him. A warmth that allows you to see why these two strangers should open their hearts to each other in a deserted café in Moscow.
Next review by Tom Keatinge
Brian Friel’s Afterplay, currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue is a highly original production, taking as it does, two characters from different Chekhov plays, and exploring their chance meeting 20 years after the curtain fell on the Russian playwright’s development of their lives. Whether you studied Chekhov at college, or are familiar with Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, is on one level perhaps irrelevant. Friel takes Sonya Serebriakova and Andrey Prozorov from the two respective plays, and fabricates a meeting in a Moscow café. 20 years have passed, their lives have moved on. Andrey’s wife has left him, and their son languishes in prison in Moscow, whilst Sonya continues to work tirelessly to keep the family estate from bankruptcy following the death of Uncle Vanya from a broken heart as a result of his rejection by Yelena. Yet despite the passing of time, both characters still exhibit the same features that marked them in Chekhov’s work. Sonya remains bitter and scarred, Andrey inventive, troubled, but fundamentally kind-natured and warm hearted. And so their meeting, the second such “chance” meeting (although both seem to have returned with some hope of a further encounter) on consecutive nights in the café evolves. Friel presents us with a mixture of real life anguish and racing fantasy as the two colliding characters continue on the paths defined for them by Chekhov, both miserable in their existence, almost finding solace with one another.
Afterplay is a vignette, 70 minutes of study, study of characters that Friel has inherited and extended. It is an interesting concept, and a truly bijoux production that will not, however, be for all comers. Of course, those unfamiliar with the two underlying original plays will surely delight in the acting of Penelope Wilton and John Hurt, but much of the play may be incomprehensible or pose a myriad of unanswered questions, as the enjoyment of observing this imaginary meeting is derived from the update on their lives, for which the background is crucial. Like meeting two old school friends, context and history bring so much more meaning to the rendezvous. Yet despite these shortcomings, Friel’s play is in its own right, a wonderful example of new and original writing and is a vehicle for two marvellous performances from Penelope Wilton and John Hurt. To experience this sensitive and emotional display is reason enough to see Afterplay, even if you are not a scholar of Russian literature.
What other critics had to say.....
KATE STRATTON for TIME OUT says "..the acting - brilliant, hard and absolutely true." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Drab". MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Remarkable play......emotionally precise production." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Heart-felt production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Touching." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Superbly acted by John Hurt and Penelope Wilton."
External links to full reviews from newspapers