Here s a surprise - it s a new production at the Almeida and there s no really big name to bring in the crowds. And here s another surprise, it s 19th century Russia and it s not by Chekhov.
To be fair, Alexander Ostrovsky is enjoying a mini-revival at the moment with several recent productions of his plays, including the forthcoming run of The Forest at the National. This new Almeida version of The Storm, translated by Frank McGuinness, is yet another step in making Ostrovsky s canon known to a wider world.
The play, though indeed Russian, is not very Chekhovian either. True, there s the similar theme of the stultifying boredom of a Russian estate, but there s none of the penny-pinching poverty of the fading middle class. The Storm is set about 30 or 40 years before Chekhov s greatest work, and it bears a more marked political dimension. Ostrovsky s Russia is on the eve of momentous change, the serfs are about to be emancipated, the railway is coming and the ideas of liberation are about to hit.
The central character of The Storm, Katerina Kabanova (better known as the heroine of Janacek s opera) is trapped in a loveless marriage and dominated by her bullying stepmother, a merchant s widow. She falls in love with Boris, the impoverished nephew of another merchant, Dikoi, and carries on an illicit relationship with tragic consequences.
The stepmother and Dikoi are grotesque characters, aware that the world they always lived in is about to be transformed, but too narrow-minded and too frightened of losing control to change their bullying, tyrannical ways. As Dikoi, Sylvester Morand is a convincing despot, flaunting his wealth, boastful of his peasant cunning and proud of his ignorance. But Maggie Steed is magnificent as the stepmother Kabanova. A proud, hissing, spiteful cobra of a woman, she terrorises her son and terrifies Katerina.
Perhaps it is Steed s performance that takes the edge off Susan Lynch s Katerina. Touching in her scenes with Boris (well played by Richard Lynch) and suitably cowering when confronted by her stepmother, Lynch never really convinces during her soliloquies - mainly as a result of speaking so quickly.
Overall, however, this starless Almeida production is worth catching. Not only is it a rare opportunity to see, presented in the UK, the best-known play of a talented playwright, it is also a wonderful depiction of a society on the verge of ripping change.