NOTE: Since this review Iain Glen has withdrawn "following doctor’s advice".
This is one of the best surprises of this cracking autumn season. It’s a play which doesn’t turn up often: unlike Ivan Turgenev’s better known “A Month In The Country” it lay pretty well ignored by the English-speaking world for a century and a half. But Mike Poulton was taken with it, and after working - for years - from a literal translation he has reanimated the language, and in doing so managed to drill down to a quintessentially Russian mixture of comedy and pathos, dignity and humiliation. Lucy Bailey’s production brings it to blazing, astonishing life.
It’s 1858: and like Chekhov later, the author sets it in an old, splendid, slightly dilapidated but heavily serf-staffed country estate, into which the smart city intrudes and stirs up old feelings and losses. In William Dudley’s gorgeous, detailed, deep-layered set the old house shimmers with half-forgotten grace, a green garden glimpsed behind, a series of doors opening as portentously as old secrets revealed.
As we discover it, seven years have gone by since the heiress Olga, then an orphan of thirteen years, left for St Petersburg and a sophisticated education. She returns a bride, happy and excited, to the old rooms where the staff have been (with much panic and bickering) whipping dustsheets off furniture and chandeliers. Lucy Briggs-Owen is at first an ingenue delight: frolicking with her bridegroom, showing him round, her happiness undimmable. A moth-eaten middle-aged man - Kuzovkin - is hovering round the edge of the group: we have seen him rousted out of his bed in the linen-cupboard, and while she prettily acknowledges him as an old family friend, her husband is taken aback at the fact that he appears to be an immovable part of the household. The shabby figure is poor, humble, and supported and liked only by his (strangely nervous) friend Ivanov: a nice controlled performance by John McAndrew, indicating that we will find out later why he fears that too much drink and excitement will cause trouble for Kuzovkin.
It does. The neighbour Tropatchov appears, inviting himself to lunch, gets him drunk, encourages him to babble, and in an appallingly painful - but comic - scene humiliates him utterly as a dependent “fool”. Richard McCabe - lately Harold Wilson in The Audience - is both ludicrous and terrifying as Tropatchov: a dangerous buffoon, a lethal fop with real and damaging malice beneath his mopping and mowing and snobbish French tags. The dinner scene culminates in an unexpected and, to the young couple, horrifying revelation blurted out by the wobbling, staggering, cruelly goaded Kuzovkin. The second act, more dramatic and heart-shakingly strong, is where the central characters must all come to terms with what they have learned. Either by denying it and demanding a retraction, or by embracing the altered relationships it implies. Briggs-Owen, so often lately a vivid adornment of RSC productions, moves from girlishness to a kind of innocent forcefulness and decency which shines against the faultiness of the men and the slowly crumbling society they live in.
Lucy Bailey is always a strong-meat director, and gets from her cast - and Poulton’s excellent, never jarring script - a vigour and reality which pulls us deep into the world of 1848, its emotions and inhibitions and disgraces and absurdities as vivid as today. And it is important that it should do this: there is no point imposing on it our modern values about money, individual worth and sexual irregularity. The priggishness of the young husband has to be - and mainly is - made credible by the stiff youthfulness of Alexander Vlahos, and McCabe’s combination of absurdity we can laugh at with a viciousness which prevents us doing so is an uneasy marvel to behold. But above all, of course, it is Iain Glen as Kuzovkin who holds the piece together: a failure and a coward, a laughing-stock and a drunkard, yet at the same time a towering, almost holy, figure of love, dignity and humility. I have never seen him finer.
"First rate, often wonderfully funny, and by the end deeply touching. "
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It's no lost masterpiece, but it has two great roles and offers a scathingly honest picture of rural Russian life."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Fluent and disciplined."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"Isn’t a top-notch piece, but it’s commendably served by a committed cast"
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard