The biggest problem with Russian playwright Aleksei Arbuzov's gentle
tragi-comedy Old World is that it is so entirely inconsequential.
The story of a growing relationship between a lonely doctor and his
eccentric and enigmatic patient, this two-hander should offer its actors the
chance to weave lovely patterns around each other in character development
Yet there is so little to work with that even two of our most
distinguished and enduring character performers, Tony Britton and Angela
Thorne, can do little more than make the most of the few amusing one-liners
with some typically well-honed timing.
The story finds former circus performer Lidya (Thorne) spending the
summer away from the bustle of Moscow and the miseries of her faithless
husband and lost child in a sanatorium on the Latvian coast.
Her free spirit at once baffle, infuriate yet beguile the clinic's
medical chief Dr Rodion (Britton), who finds in her the opportunity to
exorcise his own demons which have remained suppressed since the love of his
life was killed in the second world war.
Rarely have two such fine actors been so wasted despite bringing all
their experience to bear. So to rate such a production becomes difficult - one would prefer to give separate marks for performance and play. There are one or two touching moments, like the realisation of the depth of each of the characters' personal losses, which have coloured the rest of their lives, but the bulk of this canvas remains
bare in Ariadne Nicolaeff's translation.
Meanwhile, any pace and atmosphere generated is also lost amid a host of
changes to the fairly minimalistic set. Although Julie Godfrey's stage
furniture is attractive and well realised, the amount of effort required to
shift it in and out cannot be justified. Oliver Fenwick's atmospheric
lighting is really all that is needed to convey the shifts in mood.
As a statement of the political straightjacket under which 'approved'
Soviet playwrights were forced to work behind the Iron Curtain, the play is
an interesting window on its place in history. Arbuzov must have had to scrutinise his every word for fear of offending the authorities and damaging his status within society - but I fear that has rendered this work sterile in subject matter and language.
And with that regime having ended so long ago, you wonder just what value
director Christopher Morahan placed on reviving the play now.
- John Lawson (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich)