Tolstoy’s great “confession on a train” novella has been brilliantly adapted for the theatre by writer Nancy Harris and director Natalie Abrahami, cutting to the chase half way through the story when the town councillor Pozdynyshev turns to the audience (in the book, he turns to the narrator) in the railway compartment and confides that he’s not a music lover.
The show then exposes his engulfment by the dangerous tide of emotion unleashed by his wife’s performance at the piano of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, accompanying the violinist Trukhachevski, an old friend he has invited into the house of his failing marriage.
The mystery of music surrounding his surge of jealousy is quite amazingly well conveyed by Hilton McRae as the wife-abusing Pozdynshev, coming hard on the heels of his superb and equally well-observed television portrait of the alleged child-abuser Gary Glitter in a somewhat dubious television documentary drama with a similarly summary execution. One of life’s Iagos, McRae enters Othello territory, misconstruing an innocent letter, with a filigree performance of sly and insinuating smug nastiness.
Yet the genius of Tolstoy is to show a man who is trapped in his adherence to pompous misogyny by social conditioning and expectation. It’s not his fault that he is inexcusably like he is, or is it? He’s driven to murder but torn apart by the horror of his unlooked-for taste of sublimity in love and music, and is even tenderly solicitous over the corpse in the box.
Chloe Lamford’s design comprises the railway carriage - and carriage lamps in the auditorium - set slightly at an angle against a rippling, deliquescent backdrop where we see Sophie Scott as the unnamed (naturally) beautiful wife and Tobias Beer as the affable, portly Trukhachevski playing snippets in half-glimpsed sensual snapshots, a grand piano miraculously suspended in the middle distance, until the full flood of the Kreutzer Sonata breaks over the stage in Mark Howland’s suddenly full lighting.
It all makes for an absolutely riveting ninety minutes, with McRae giving the performance of his career and Abrahami’s production only slightly faltering when the music competes too forcibly for our attention with the words, and Ian William Galloway’s clever projections offer too much unnecessary and hard-to-decipher flesh-threshing.