Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Theatre review: Three Days in the Country

The summer of Patrick Marber Must Have Some Dirt On Rufus Norris concludes in the Lyttelton (although he hasn't had a show in The Artist Formerly Known As Shed yet, so maybe there's more to come?) This time Marber turns to Russian theatre and Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country, which he re-writes, directs and compacts down to Three Days in the Country. Rakitin (John Simm) is visiting old friends at their country estate, but while he's been not-so-secretly in love with Natalya (Amanda Drew) for the best part of 20 years, her husband and his best friend Arkady (John Light) never seems to have cottoned on. Rakitin arrives for another bout of declarations of love she never quite reciprocates, but there's a new dynamic now: The couple recently hired a new tutor for their son, the handsome and brooding Belyaev (Royce Pierreson.) All the women in the house seem to have fallen for him, including Natalya herself. In fact she's quite convinced that she's in love with Belyaev to an extent that she never felt for Rakitin or her husband.

Lately the trend for set designers at the Lyttelton has been to strip the space back to its bare bones, and so does Mark Thompson here, except for a large painting that dominates the stage and provides the landscape.

Although the costumes and furniture are elaborate and of the period, the staging sees clear glass walls descend around the actors, through which we can see some of the cast sitting and waiting their turn - often a character whose absence hangs heavy over the scene being played. Gentle piano chords announce the passing of time or characters' entrances and exits, while a heavy, rusted red door hangs over the action, whose significance will become apparent in the second act.

The design may contribute strongly to the play's atmosphere but the script (which Marber might have actually slipped a Doctor Who in-joke into) and performances bring a lot of sparkling humour. The central characters may be agonising over unrequited love but Three Days in the Country is an ensemble piece and they're surrounded by characters with their own romantic problems. Rich-but-dull neighbour Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) intends to propose to Natalya's ward Vera (Lily Sacofsky,) but like everyone else she only has eyes for Belyaev. While the upper classes swoon over him, the maid Katya (Cherelle Skeete) gets much more hands-on with the tutor behind the notorious red door, much to the consternation of her jilted fiancé Matvey (Nicholas Bishop.)

Meanwhile Doctor Shpigelsky's (Mark Gatiss) out-of-the-blue proposal to lonely spinster Lizaveta (Debra Gillett) doesn't go as planned in more ways than one, and in the background Gawn Grainger's quietly drunk German tutor Schaaf provides good value. Three Days in the Country is a warm and always likeable couple of hours, mixing gentle humour with understated heartbreak, and is by far the most satisfying of Marber's three contributions to the National in recent months.

Three Days in the Country by Patrick Marber, based on A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev, is booking in repertory until the 21st of October at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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