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The Kreutzer Sonata (Arcola Theatre)

Greg Hicks stars in Nancy Harris' stage adaptation of Tolstoy's novel

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Greg Hicks in The Kreutzer Sonata
© Ciaran Dowd

Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" took its name from a violin player who deemed the work simply too incomprehensible to be performed. Heaving with lusty violence, it at least inspired Leo Tolstoy, who named a novella after it in 1889. Banned in Russia and America, his tale of sex, jealousy, and murder was a worthy successor to the rebellious music – and this stage adaptation by Nancy Harris contains the virtuoso talent to live up to that dark legacy.

In this transfer of the production to London, Greg Hicks plays Pozdnyshev, a man on a rail journey who explains why music and musicians have ruined his life. We learn that when his wife, a pianist, played the "Kreutzer Sonata" in a duet with one of Pozdnyshev's friends, a violinist, the pair awakened in themselves such shared passion and emotion that Pozdnyshev was later motivated to kill his wife in a jealous rage.

And as his confession gathers momentum, so does the sonata: Alice Pinto and Phillip Granell are on piano and violin, hammering away when Pozdnyshev is at his most frenzied, and lulling him into nostalgia in the more tender moments.

Pozdnyshev urges us to consider the murder as a crime of passion, pointing that he got off the hook. After all, it's Beethoven who's the culprit, for creating such tantalisingly joyful music. It can make something as humdrum as married life and parenthood drive a man to total madness.

While his character might have come across as any old rambling man on a train who lives in dumb self-justification, Hicks gives us an outstandingly slippery performance. One minute he's the charismatic courtroom operator, chronicling his life with precise chops of his right hand. The next, he's the world-weary bloke; personable, relatable: "Never be tempted to procreate, let me tell you!"

His monologue reveals that a pressure to demonstrate sexual prowess led him to prostitutes at an early age – and to a materialistic view of women. Although Tolstoy had been preaching about abstinence (in the apparent belief that having too many children would ultimately ruin your life), what emerges in this reworking is the notion that Pozdnyshev might be trapped in an unhealthy paradigm of masculinity. Which could exist just as easily in 2016 as 1889.

It is not so much that the play mounts a defence of this misogynistic, self-absorbed individual; only that Hicks's rendition of Pozdnyshev is so engaging you're invited to think in far broader terms than Tolstoy's morality tale might at first indicate. But it's not a one-man show at all: those tantalisingly joyful musicians are hard at work too, absolutely ruining your evening with all that Beethoven.

The Kreutzer Sonata runs at the Arcola Theatre until 23 July.

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