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The Kreutzer Sonata

Leo Tolstoy, adapted by Nancy Harris
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill
(2009)

Production photo

The creators have worked wonders with a short story that does not obviously lend itself to theatrical performance. Its main topic may be sexual jealousy but, with only a single viewpoint, this 85 minute solo show might have struggled to hold the attention.

The Kreutzer Sonata has something of the quality of Anna Karenina but told from the viewpoint of the wronged husband rather than the wife or her lover. For the stage, the text been exceptionally well adapted by Nancy Harris, who has a feel for the language of self-torture.

In this case, the protagonist is Pozdynyshev, a well-to-do civil servant with something of a shady past. This most ordinary of men is immaculately portrayed by Hilton McRae from a moving railway carriage that he identifies as the perfect encouragement to soul-bearing of the most intimate variety.

Tolstoy has carefully structured his story to match the rhythms and repetitions of a musical performance, perhaps Beethoven's violin sonata of the title.

Gradually, we move from an opening in which Pozdynyshev talks about his rakish early adult years to the lakeside meeting with a beauty who became his wife.

Strangely, their mutual happiness could be measured by the eight year period during which she did not play the piano that he gave her as an early gift. The symbolism only becomes apparent following a meeting that Pozdynyshev has with a former childhood friend, Trukhachevski.

In a fatal moment, our guide introduces the professional violinist with French training to his pianist wife and, in his own eyes at least, instantly cuckolds himself.

However, the affair seems far more in the congenitally jealous narrator's own mind than the flesh, since the musicians appear interested merely in pairing on piano and violin rather than in each other's arms.

As in the case of Othello, once he has sown the seeds of his own jealousy, there is nothing that will persuade Pozdynyshev of the couple's innocence and the ending becomes inevitable.

In addition to Hilton McRae's well judged performance cleverly directed - or should that be orchestrated? - by Natalie Abrahami, there are additional elements that make this a special evening. First, his mind's eye is tastefully brought to life behind a thin curtain both using video projections and subtly lit actor-musicians.

Sophie Scott as the wife and Tobias Beer the old friend play their respective instruments live, adding an extra dimension. The music is beautiful and cleverly injected into the story both to alter the pacing and add character together with deep poignancy.

The Kreutzer Sonata is a well-conceived production that deserves to be a sell-out success, thanks to its thought-provoking, timeless storyline and marvellous production qualities.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher