Lyttelton – National Theatre
7th August 2015
Earlier this month theatrical history was made. All three of the National Theatre’s playing spaces were occupied by plays overseen in various ways by Patrick Marber in what is turning out to be something of a renaissance for the playwright (including a revival of Closer at the Donmar Warehouse earlier this year). For two consecutive nights the Olivier stage played host to The Beaux Stratagem, Farquhar’s restoration comedy (Marber contributed in updating the dramaturgy); the Dorfman was occupied by Marber’s new football locker room-set play, The Red Lion; and playing the Lyttelton theatre, his reimagining of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, re-titled Three Days in the Country (which Marber also directs). Quite a feat for a playwright who has been out of the public eye for nigh on a decade, and if Three Days in the Country is anything to go by, his comeback is a very successful one indeed.
Marber adapts Turgenev’s tragi-comedy about love of all types - familial, romantic, platonic, unrequited - with a light touch, glorying in comedic moments both broad and subtle. The comedic approach of Marber’s direction comes to a head in the opening scene of Act two. As Shpigelsky, Mark Gatiss milks every line and gesture for all it’s worth as the inept doctor’s pathetic attempt to propose to the unwitting Lizaveta (Debra Gillett) proves to be an unremitting disaster. The effect is raucously funny.
Despite Marber’s comic skill, he never compromises the underlying tragedy of the piece which is set to simmer beneath the exchanging of witticisms until tensions eventually boil over in the culmination of the second act. Thus, while Gatiss revels in what he does best, and arguably generates the biggest laughs of the evening, most impressive are Amanda Drew and John Simm as the beautiful yet guarded Natalya and family friend Rakitin, the man hopelessly in love with her. Both actors move effortlessly between witty repartee and gut-wrenching honesty, Drew often visibly on the verge of tears and Simm packing a punch during his breakdown (or should that be breakthrough?) and words of wisdom to Belyaev (Royce Pierreson). As the drama progresses, the once superficially breezy characters unravel and are left baring the raw state of their souls, previous pretences extinguished. A particularly striking moment of truth comes as Natalya reveals ‘this marriage. A performance of love. For a willing audience of one small boy’.
Also of note is Lily Sacofsky’s headstrong but naïve Vera, ward of Natalya. Sacofsky treads the line between vulnerability and determination that often defines the young with great skill, surely a name to look out for in the future.
Mark Thompson’s sparse design may initially seem at odds with the textual presence of the house and the preoccupation with wealth, land and property. The impressionistic backdrop of the countryside, along with period costumes and the intermittent bursts of Russian music (beautifully sung by Cherrelle Skeete) are the few indicators of time and place. However, the exposed theatre space allows the play to breathe and the glass wall panels further the sense of the characters’ being laid bare, transcending the superficial. In some instances characters sit to the back and sides watching the action play out through the glass; there is no place to hide.
Overall, while effectively drawing upon Turgenev’s original, there are definite traces of Marber’s own style, perhaps most evident in the nod to Dealer’s Choice in the opening and closing card table scenes. With this production that combines belly laughs with poignant moments, all performed by a highly skilled cast and carefully overseen by Marber, it is clear that the playwright/director is firmly establishing himself back at the centre of the British theatre scene and Three Days in the Country is a real return to form.
Three Days in the Country plays at the Lyttelton - National Theatre until 21st October 2015