Three Days in the Country (National Theatre, Lyttelton)
Mark Gatiss and John Simm star in Patrick Marber's adaptation of Turgenev's A Month in the Country
Patrick Marber's flying visit to Turgenev's A Month in the Country is a weekend break, really, and the hot summer languor of life down on the landowner Arkady's estate has been replaced with a cool edginess and a fierce downpour.
First performed in 1872, a full twenty years before Chekhov's The Seagull, which it influenced greatly, the play became a template for the Russian country house drama, morphing into films, an Irish version by Brian Friel, and a famous Frederick Ashton ballet, so Marber is fully entitled to join the queue of adaptors.
The rain runs down the industrial plastic sheets on Mark Thompson's striking abstract design – actors sit on chairs when not involved, the vista is an elongated daub of forest vegetation, a red mottled door stands free; love's poniards fly in all directions while Amanda Drew's enervated, deliciously focussed Natalya pines for her young son's tutor, Belyaev, somewhat blockishly played by Royce Pierreson.
There's hardly a moment to draw breath in Marber's tensile two-hour production which eliminates all that summer sloppiness but doesn't always leave enough room for John Simm's cynical family friend Rakitin to register his long-simmering devotion to Natalya, or for Arkady himself, Natalya's husband, sketched in tantalisingly by a tousle-haired John Light, to establish himself as a visionary progressive, with his new winnowing machine and architectural plans.
Traditionally, Natalya and Rakitin form the emotional axis of the action in star duels dating back to Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin and Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren and John Hurt. The last NT production (translated by Isaiah Berlin, in 1981) paired Francesca Annis with Nigel Terry, and this reading is much closer to that one. It's a compelling compression. Turgenev's "novel in dramatic form" would take five hours in a complete performance, so Marber, working from a literal translation by Patrick Miles, is probably justified – by precedent, if nothing else - in cutting and adapting so drastically.
But he still manages a mood that is both Russian and critically irreverent, with both Cherrelle Skeete's maidservant and confident newcomer Lily Sacofsky as Natalya's ward, Vera, also stuck on Belyaev, the latter diverted towards a boring rich neighbour, beautifully done by Nigel Betts; while Gawn Grainger's senior German tutor (Grainger played Arkady in the Mirren/Hurt production twenty years ago) supervises card games stamped with Marber's expertise on the tables.
There are many great scenes in the play, but the one that stands out here is the marriage proposal of Mark Gatiss's comic doctor, Shpigelsky ("How can I have any success when people keep getting better?"), to the bespectacled, tightly drawn spinster of Debra Gillett's Lizaveta, companion to Arkady's mother (Lynn Farleigh).
Falling to one knee, Gatiss suffers an acute spasm in his back and ends up crawling, crab-like, towards a crate, hauling himself up and pressing his suit, and conditions of marriage, like an agonised human corkscrew to the amused delight of Gillett's suddenly unbound dependent; centre-stage, not meant to be theirs, is their new kingdom.
Things go a little bit wrong and woozy for everyone else, especially Natalya, and there's nothing genteel or reined in about Drew's unhappiness at the end. Neil Austin's lighting and, especially, Adam Cork's music, a rumbling thrum that occasionally erupts into Russian song, complete a fully achieved vision of the play that still makes you wonder if the full philosophical and poetic bagginess of it all – with a more detailed regard to historical context - might not be another National Theatre project one day.