The concept behind Afterplay is so simple that you wonder why it has rarely if ever been done before. Brian Friel has taken one character from Uncle Vanya and another from Three Sisters, moved the clock on twenty years and put them together in a new play.
This is such a good idea that it seems only a matter of time before someone writes Hamlet and Juliet or Romeo and Cleopatra.
Putting the two characters together is one thing, creating a play that is worthy of their originator is quite another. It is a delight to be able to report that Afterplay is beautifully and tenderly written and significantly adds to the Chekhov canon. This is perhaps not so surprising since Friel has translated both plays for the Dublin and the London stages.
Both Robert Lefevre's direction and the acting from John Hurt as Andrey Prozorov and Penelope Wilton as Sonya Serebriakova are immaculate. They take care over every word and gradually build up pictures of their characters' lives during period since the end of their respective plays. They ensure that a gentle Chekhovian humour is maintained and draw out the pain that that has characterised the lives of these two unhappy people.
Sonia continues to pine for Dr Astrov who married the professor's widow Elena but whose first love remains arboriculture. She still believes that he has a sneaking love for her and sees him often enough to quote him liberally. Ultimately though, as she had predicted at the end of Uncle Vanya, she endures life rather than living it.
When she meets Andrey in Moscow, she is immediately taken with him, and his main attraction seems to be that he reminds her of her Uncle Vanya. This is perhaps all the more relevant to her as she is once again trying to save the estate, on this occasion by planting forests.
The feelings are mutual, as poor Andrey, who has led a tough life since the end of Three Sisters, needs cheering up. His wife left him long ago but continues to haunt him, and his two children have gone to the bad.
Initially, he explains that he is a professional musician at the opera and gives some trenchant views on the German conductor and diva. As with so much else that he tells Sonya, it soon becomes apparent that he has had to invent a life to maintain any self respect. One of her attractions for him is that she reminds him of his sisters.
This play beautifully complements the current Brian Friel translation of Uncle Vanya at the Donmar and it is strongly recommended that any fan of Chekhov, good acting or good writing should ensure that they attend both while they have the opportunity.