A Month in the Country

Ivan Turgenev, adapted by Brian Friel
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2010)

A Month in the Country production photo

Treated with the lightest of light touches by director Jonathan Kent, and freely adapted with Friel’s trademark Irish humour, Turgenev’s 1848 play sings in operatic style - highs and lows, comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears all intermingled within the ‘catastrophe’ of love.

Paul Brown’s set is a glorious triumph of ingenuity with every detail meticulously presented - a very beautiful and peaceful setting contrasting with the emotional turmoil to follow. A naturalistic vegetable garden backed by beanpoles has towering beech and birch trees extending their canopy over the whole of the vast auditorium giving the feeling that we are actually in the woods watching a real-life drama unfold. The house is set to one side with a wooden veranda around two sides and the ground is strewn with fallen leaves. It is autumn in mid-nineteenth century Russia.

Our heroine Natalya is reclining with a book, but she is bored and restless, loved by her older husband and also by their close family friend, yet wanting something more although not quite sure what. When the young and virile Aleksey (James McArdle) arrives as tutor to her son she thinks she has discovered the answer.

In this expertly cast play Natalya is the versatile Janie Dee, beautiful, vivacious, and always a joy to watch, she wrestles with her desires and her conscience in a torment of uncertainty. She has fallen desperately in love with Aleksey, a breath of fresh air from the outside world and, surprisingly, Scottish. He, however, is attracted to her ward Vera who in her turn is in love with him. How to resolve the situation? Maybe if Vera was married off to the neighbouring rich, but much older, landowner Alfanasy (Tony Haygarth)?

Dee is mesmerising as, in an agonising mixture of misplaced passion and malignant manipulation she stalks the stage delving deep into her soul trying to persuade herself to do the right thing, while besotted friend Rakitin (Michael Feast), treated with suspicion and accusations by husband Arkady (Jonathan Coy), finally packs his bags and leaves. Rakitin, unable to cope with the intensity of Natalya’s passion, has left too.

The definition of the best acting is that it doesn’t appear to be acting at all, and every single one of this exceptional cast gives the impression that they are living the role rather than playing it. Even Teddy Kepner’s bluff German tutor, who thinks he is an expert linguist while using all the wrong words, seems just about credible (so long as you forget the policeman in ‘Allo, ‘Allo) while Phoebe Fox’s Vera displays all the suffering intensity of teenage love and longing while resigning herself to her loss.

Carolyn Pickles as companion to Arkady’s widowed mother comes into her own towards the end. Cheerful, confident and sensible, she seems to have avoided the hysteria happening around her, and she and Doctor Shpigelsky (Kenneth Cranham) will no doubt get on famously even with his dreadful jokes which he uses to hide the underlying resentment of his peasant origins.

As night begins to fall and the light dims, birds are singing in the trees, a dog barks and despite the complications of relationships and arguments which have occurred I couldn’t help feeling that all would be well in the end. Perhaps not perfect, but fairly satisfactory, and isn’t that like most lives!

A most beautiful conclusion to another Festival, superbly performed and presented, and yet another jewel in Chichester’s crown.

Until Saturday, 16th October, 2010

Reviewer: Sheila Connor