Patrick Marber's condensed version of Turgenev's long-winded, novelistic A Month in the Country begins slowly, excruciatingly slowly, like most classic Russian plays. After about half an hour it suddenly fizzes into life, its intriguing mix of tragicomic plot, sub-plot, counter-plot (and counter-counter plot) gripping the audience's attention until the curtain call. This was Marber's first play after several years of writer's block following his own move to the country, in some people's eyes a place of astounding beauty where nothing happens. It helped him get his mojo back, and after this absorbing, re-jigged interpretation of an old masterpiece he went on to write his first original play in years, The Red Lion, which is currently showing at the Dorfman theatre next door to this production.
First performed in 1872 but written years earlier, Turgenev's prickly comedy is about the chaos unleashed at a remote country estate when a fit young tutor, Belyaev (a charming Royce Pierreson), turns up and everyone starts falling in love with him. There's already plenty of complicated love entanglement going back twenty years among residents of the expensive house, so Belyaev's presence adds fuel to the fire. Lady of the manor and bored housewife Natalya (the brilliantly beguiling Amanda Drew) is out of love with her rich husband Arkady (John Light) – if she ever loved him in the first place. Their ward, seventeen year-old Vera (Lily Sacofsky), falls head over heels in love with the tutor. Natalya herself is besotted by him, and suspicions are that she wants to marry Vera off to an old man, Schaaf (Gawn Grainger), so she can have Belyaev to herself behind her husband's back. The husband's best friend Rakitin (the bouncy John Simm), meanwhile, is madly in love with Natalya. Unseen but frequently referenced are the as-yet unemancipated serfs in this mini feudal society.
One key subplot (of many) sees Mark Gatiss' funny quack Doctor Shpigelsky propose to the ageing spinster Lizaveta (played superbly by Marber's wife in real life, Debra Gillett). Both characters display a loneliness and unhappiness shared by most in the play. Despite never having shown any romantic interest in Lizaveta in the years before, Shpigelsky's new marry-to-be-happy strategy is premised on complete openness about his failings during the proposal scene, which is one of the wittiest in Three Days in the Country. Lizaveta's cutting retorts are delightful. By being brutally upfront and honest, he says he hopes to avoid the sham marriages he sees all around him. Natalya, for example, admits at one point that her marriage is nothing but “a performance of love for one small boy” – their ten year-old son, Kolya.
Kolya was left out of previous English versions of A Month in the Country, but Marber reinstates him to useful dramatic effect. There's a sense that we too witness the action through the baffled detachment of a small child's eyes. It also reinforces knowledge of the timelessness and repetitive nature of the human predicament: this may be a period costume drama but its themes are universal and ongoing. Kolya has all this to come. Thanks also to Mark Thompson's open set, this feels like a modern play. The characters seem immediate, relevant, not detached by their nineteenth-century dress. Most notably, the set does not have any walls with doors – as you'd usually expect in a historic piece of this sort – and the actors sit always in view around the back and sides of the stage when they're not in a scene. This speeds up scene changes and is a visual reminder that words spoken in whispered confidence on stage are constantly at risk of being overheard by eavesdroppers.
The back of the stage is a huge rural painting based on one by Russian landscape artist Isaac Levitan (1860 - 1900). Although difficult to discern for anyone not sat in the first few rows of the stalls, the stage's floor is an extension of this canvas, and you can see its pinned edges slightly overhanging the edge of the stage. This idea of the play as a painting gives it an abstract quality that encourages the imagination to roam freer than it would have had the action taken place in a faithfully re-produced posh drawing room, for example. A very slowly descending red door in the air above the stage confirms this aesthetic: it could represent open and shut relationships, the key to happiness, closed opportunities, just a door in a house, or whatever you want it to mean.