A new Chekhov play, Longing, has been created by novelist William Boyd from two of the Russian author’s short stories and given a wonderfully skilled and well-cast production by Nina Raine that certainly looks Chekhovian.
Designer Lizzie Clachan provides silver birches and sycamore, birdsong (tits and blackbirds), a colourful betrothal party, samovars and brandy bottles, and a delightful summer house in the wooded corner of a run-down country estate.
The shorter of the stories, “A Visit to Friends,” takes precedence, enveloping elements and only a few of the characters of the much longer one, “My Life,” in which Mishail (William Postlethwaite), the son of a drab, unimaginative architect, adopts a life of manual labour in reactionary disgust; Boyd consigns him to this summer house, on a roof-painting expedition, where two sisters and a friend (from the shorter story) are welcoming a diffident Moscow lawyer, Kolia (Iain Glen), who cannot commit himself to romantic relationships.
Boyd can then do some serious tinkering by bringing Mishail’s engagement to the daughter, Kleopatra (Catrin Stewart), of the boorish district engineer, Dolzikhov (John Sessions), into the first scenario: Dolzikhov has done a Lopakhin and bought the estate, leaving the girls’ sottish father Sergei (Alan Cox) to down-size to Vanya-style managerial status.
That means he and his wife, the elder sister, Tania (Natasha Little), have to move out of the big house into the summer house, much to the latter’s irritation. Meanwhile, her friend, Varia (Tamsin Greig), a slightly worn-out doctor with a long-ago crush on Kolia, can extend her casual, critical stalking of the visitor while the younger sister Natasha (Eve Ponsonby) virtually throws herself at the dithering lawyer.
In a further new over-lapping twist, Mishail falls in love with Natasha, and the play ends on a moonlit night of new and thwarted possibilities, though Kolia still manages to miss Varia’s train back to Moscow; they are stranded in physical and emotional transit, stuck on a narrative semi-colon.
Amazingly, there’s no crashing of gears in all this, and Boyd has written completely new dialogue that manages not to sound like second-rate spoof Chekhov. In the original stories, Kolia steals away after just one night, while Mishail marries someone else altogether, who in turn leaves him (his sister, not his wife, is called Kleopatra).
The play is tilted towards a melancholic nearly-reunion of Kolia and Varia, and it’s expertly, very touchingly played, with no swooning or sentiment, by Glen (last year’s outstanding Uncle Vanya) and Greig. The young girls, too, are exceptionally good, and Cox and Sessions fill out their contrasting studies in irresponsible alcoholic bonhomie and go-getting, landscape-changing interference with great gusto.