A theatrically based ramble for you today…
Yesterday I went to the theatre in London to see Patrick Marber’s new adaptation of Turgenev’s comedy of manners A Month in the Country. Marber’s version takes place over a shorter period, so is called Three Days in the Country. I’ll come back to the play itself later.
I decided to make the most of my travelcard by going into London some hours earlier and doing something touristy. I thought about going up the Shard – but it’s over £30, so I shall save that for another day. Instead I went to the Museum of London near St Paul’s which was free and has a nice display of Victorian shopfronts, but – more relevant to my evening’s entertainment I went to nearby Postman’s Park…
Just yards away from the Museum, this hidden gem of a garden by St Botolph’s Church was apparently named for its popularity as a lunch spot for local post office workers. It’s a special place because it has a section full of memorial plaques to local heroes who died saving others, and it’s hard not be be moved by the stories on the tiles.
Postman’s Park plays a large part in Patrick Marber’s play Closer and I was lucky enough to see its first run at the NT’s smallest theatre, the Cottesloe, in 1997. An intimate four-hander about sexual politics, it starred Clive Owen, Ciaran Hinds, Sally Dexter and Liza Walker as Alice – a young woman obsessed with the park. Owen went on to also star in the film (2004) but swapped parts; (Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman completed the good-looking quartet this time). In Scene 12, Larry and Anna meet in the park:
Larry: …It’s like putting flowers at the roadside. People need to remember. It makes things seem less – random. Actually, I hate this memorial.
Larry: It’s the sentimental act of a Victoria philanthropist: remember the dead, forget the living.
Anna: You’re a pompous bastard.
Larry: And you are an incurable romantic.
I sat there in the dappled sunshine for a while after taking my photographs and people watched – from bemused tourists to workers late-lunching and chatting, it was very pleasant.
Then off to the Southbank by bus for a change – better view and not as hot as the underground. Once there I perused the second hand books underneath Waterloo Bridge (I bought one book only), went into the BFI (British Film Institute) and its shop, had some streetfood and a Mr Whippy ice-cream for tea, and again indulged in people watching by the riverside, before going into the National Theatre, where my pre-Theatre drink was a cup of tea.
Finally to Three Days in the Country – adapted by Patrick Marber after Turgenev. I couldn’t believe my luck at getting a ticket for the first night of the previews – i.e. the first public performance – and it already felt run-in. In the first scene Rakitin has arrived at the country estate of his childhood friend, summoned there by Arkady’s wife Natalya… Rakitin is telling Natalya about his recent stay with the Krinitsyns:
Rakitin: The Krinitsyns are young, beautiful, married a year … and they want to kill each other. By next spring their mutual loathing will have blossomed. By winter their marriage will have frozen. And then they’ll have some children.
Natalya: How did you pass the time?
Rakitin: We drank.
Natalya: You explored the limits of country life.
Rakitin: And then I received your letter. Why did you send for me?
Natalya: I don’t remember
Rakitin: You wrote, ‘I’m in despair, please come at once.’
Natalya: You should’ve ignored me.
Rakitin: You know I can’t.
Natalya: Ignore me!
This short extract from the first act really sets the scene, and Rakitin’s first utterances got great laughs. Rakitin is the urbane wit and resentful admirer; Natalya is a bored housewife who is looking elsewhere. You know there will be misunderstandings to come, especially once you meet Belayaev, the new young tutor for Natalya’s son! Add in Vera, their seventeen year old ward whose heart is ready to be won, assorted friends, hangers-on and servants and the set-up is complete.
Marber’s new version instantly seemed very Chekhovian. However, it wasn’t until I checked dates that I found that Turgenev wrote it forty years before Chekhov, so Chekhov is Turgenevian!
This production featured many familiar faces from theatre and TV, but its two stars are John Simm as Rakitin, and Mark Gatiss as Shpigelsky, the local Doctor and main comic part. Both were fine – and Gatiss had one memorable scene which brought the house down in laughter when, on the point of proposing to Lizaveta, he gets down on one knee only to rick his back; (Lizaveta is Arkady’s mother’s companion, played by Debra Gillett in Julia McKenzie mode). Simm’s character was less physical and had to win you over with wit and pathos – done with ‘Master’-ly success I thought. Amanda Drew as Natalya was suitably needy throughout and the supporting cast gave great value.
One funny incident occurred when Vera’s elderly suitor Bolshintsov had to drop his cane and it slid off the edge of the stage into the audience. The cane was gently edged back onto the stage and when Bolshintsov as played by Nigel Betts next appeared, he scooped it up so naturally without stopping his speech, he got a little ripple of applause.
Three Days… was set in period, but the staging was quite modern. There was one constant backdrop and almost the entire cast were visible the whole time, sitting motionless on chairs around the central staging area when not in scene. You could see into the wings too, with props ready and waiting and the pianist providing occasional incidental music – laying bare the workings and exposing the heart of the stage – and this is a play all about hearts!
Although already polished, I can see that once settled into its run, Three Days in the Country will be a big summer hit. Highly recommended if you can get a ticket.
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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Three Days in the Country: An Unfaithful Version Play text by Patrick Marber after Turgenev. Pub July 2015, Faber & Faber. Paperback 112 pages.
Closer (Methuen Student Editions) Play text by Patrick Marber. Paperback.
Closer [DVD]