A study of romantic obsession imbued with wit and agony is how you could describe Patrick Marber's pared down version of Ivan Turgenev's comedy of manners Three Days in the Country the NT's Lyttleton auditorium.
The place is an isolated estate in Russia, the time the mid 19th century. A handsome new tutor Belyaev brings turmoil to an eccentric household. Over three days one summer, the young and old will learn lessons in love: first love and forbidden love, maternal love and platonic love, ridiculous love and lost love, the love left unsaid and the love which must out. There's the bored restless lady of the house, Natalya, trapped in an unhappy marriage to a rich landowner, Arkady, but smitten by her son's tutor Belyaev; there's the brilliant sardonic friend, Rakitin, unrequitedly in love with her, and then there's the flamboyantly awkward local doctor Shpigelsky. Things are further complicated by the fact that Natalya's 17-year-old ward Vera is also fascinated by Belyaev. The scene thus is set for impending emotional chaos.
Marber's terse version of the Russian classic usually called A Month in the Country strips it back to a tenth of that time, reducing a piece that normally lasts four hours to two and a quarter. His approach is certainly fresh punctuated by moments of darting wit and sharpened by his wry understanding of frustration and domestic agony, although early on the characters' dead end lives make for one or two sluggish scenes. But this is a production so well staged and acted – it really catches fire in the second half – that you tend to overlook its faults.
One scene in particular that stands out is the marriage proposal of Shpigelsky, who describes himself as a "maestro of misdiagnosis" and wonders "How I am to survive if people simply get better?" to the bespectacled spinster Lizoveta, companion to Arkady's mother. Falling to one knee he suffers an acute spasm in his back and ends up crawling crab-like towards a crate, hauling himself up and pressing his suit and conditions of marriage like an agonised human corkscrew, much to Lizoveta's delight.
Mark Thompson's design of a bright red door suggests the potential for an outpouring of desire, while in the background we glimpse fields of a few trees and a mass of cloud reinforcing the feeling of just how much these individuals are trapped in this stagnant backwater.
Marber, who also directs, elicits a host of beautifully judged performances, especially Amanda Drew as an enervated, focussed Natalya, gliding magnificently between icy withdrawal and barely suppressed ardour for Belyaev, Royce Pierrson as the man in question who sets female hearts a flutter, John Light as her husband Arkady, a visionary progressive with his new winnowing machine and architectural plans and Mark Gatiss who alone captures the tragedy and hilarity of the work, injecting vitality and pathos into the role of the wise but rueful visiting doctor Shpigelsky. John Simm, meanwhile, brings a volatile mix of attentive puppyish fidelity and plaintive cynicism as Natalya's perennially sidelined love interest Rakitin, while Debra Gillet is a persuasive Lizaveta and Lilly Sacofsky makes a strong impression as Vera.
These three days literally fly by in the theatre!
Three Days in the Country
Continues in repertory until Saturday 20 October 2015.
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: April 7, 2021