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Review Round-up: Boyd channels Chekhov with Longing

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Bestselling author William Boyd's adaptation of two short stories by Chekhov, titled Longing, premiered at Hampstead Theatre last week (8 March 2013).

When Kolia is invited to visit his oldest friends on their estate in the country he anticipates a pleasant break from Moscow life. But as the comedy of provincial life plays out around him, he finds himself adrift in a miasma of false expectations, missed opportunities and unspoken passions.

Directed by Nina Raine with a cast including Tamsin Greig and Iain Glen (pictured), Longing runs until 13 April.

Michael Coveney

Designer Lizzie Clachan provides silver birches and sycamore, birdsong (tits and blackbirds), a colourful betrothal party, samovars and brandy bottles, and a delightful summer house in the wooded corner of a run-down country estate. The shorter of the stories, “A Visit to Friends,” takes precedence, enveloping elements and only a few of the characters of the much longer one, “My Life,”… Amazingly, there’s no crashing of gears in all this, and Boyd has written completely new dialogue that manages not to sound like second-rate spoof Chekhov. The play is tilted towards a melancholic nearly-reunion of Kolia and Varia, and it’s expertly, very touchingly played, with no swooning or sentiment, by Glen (last year’s outstanding Uncle Vanya) and Greig. The young girls, too, are exceptionally good, and Cox and Sessions fill out their contrasting studies in irresponsible alcoholic bonhomie and go-getting, landscape-changing interference with great gusto.

Michael Billington

...it works because it deals with eternal Russian themes – and because it is performed with rare musical precision. Boyd's chosen stories neatly intersect... Watching Boyd's ingenious mix-and-match, it is impossible not to be reminded of Chekhov's future masterpieces... Nina Raine's production gains immeasurably from luxury casting. Iain Glen is remarkable as Kolia... Tamsin Greig, as the middle-aged doctor clearly besotted by him, subtly evokes the quiet anguish of the unfulfilled heart. And there is a clutch of fine performances from Alan Cox as the alcoholic Sergei, Natasha Little as his despairing wife and William Postlethwaite as the well-born Misail who has a Tolstoyan urge to identify with the workers. Not perhaps a wholly original play, but one that powerfully reminds us that Chekhov's stories contain the seeds of all his dramas.

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

...The big question was whether by combining My Life and A Visit to Friends in a single dramatised work, Boyd would create something that could stand comparison with Chekhov’s own finest plays. The answer, perhaps inevitably, is not quite. Chekhov’s greatest plays create the impression that we are watching the unmediated flow of life itself. One is hardly aware of the artistry that has made this illusion possible. Boyd’s writing in comparison feels more clogged and contrived. But there is real ingenuity here, and a manifest love and understanding of the Russian writer. Nina Raine’s production captures Chekhov’s distinctive mixture of heartache and comedy and Lizzie Clachan’s lovely autumnal design of a decayed summerhouse in an autumnal country estate conjures the Chekhovian mood perfectly...

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

...As its title suggests, Longing is steeped in melancholy. It is also illuminated by some lovely performances... Greig is especially poignant, beautifully conveying Varia’s fleeting fantasies and her efforts to embrace pragmatism. Glen captures Kolia’s flinty charisma, Little gives a fine-grained account of Tania’s marital frustrations and William Postlethwaite’s Misail is un-orthodox and interesting. There is much to admire in Nina Raine’s production, which is discreetly rich with a gorgeous set by Lizzie Clachan and a particularly eloquent sound design by Gareth Fry. The play itself is a reverent tribute to Chekhov. There is no mistaking the depth of Boyd’s immersion in his work but the first half feels a little too sedate, and the second a bit too busy. Some of the characters are underdeveloped and the exposition of their tangled back-story does not quite gel. What’s missing, above all, is the laconic brilliance of Chekhov’s humour.

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

Nina Raine’s production is handsome and watchable, chiefly thanks to strong acting from a cast... In the rush to the story-telling we lose some of the slow, samovar-style simmer of a real Chekhov... the entrances and exits and mishaps and comeuppances all pile on top of one another a little fast. A showdown between Kolia and the drunken wastrel is completed quicker than a scene in an average TV soap opera. The rest, although faultlessly acted and pretty well directed, although satisfyingly elegiac, although perfectly respectable tragic fare and done with a confidence we have come to expect from the Hampstead since it was taken over by artistic director Edward Hall, feels somehow a touch ersatz... It may help newcomers develop a taste for Chekhov, but like reproduction furniture or reconstituted chicken, it is not quite as satisfying as the real thing.

Paul Taylor

...I sat through the resulting piece in a mood of deep respect but I found that I couldn't surrender to it. This is no fault of Nina Raine's wonderful production which finds, releases and expertly shapes the baffled tragicomic Chekhovian energies in the dramatised situation. And the actors are uniformly splendid. A superlative and surprising Vanya for Lucy Bailey last year, Iain Glen offers a penetrating portrayal here of the kind of moulting heart-breaker who can't, as we say these days, “commit”. And Tamsin Greig is quietly devastating as the pragmatic, lonely doctor, Varia... The trouble is that the play itself, abounding in overt points of similarity the canonical Chekhov dramas, feels, as a result, strangely repro- and ersatz... It didn't seem like a graceful exercise but like a play for today.

Andrzej Lukowski
Time Out

…a handsome production by rising star Nina Raine and well-performed by a cast headed by Tamsin Greig and Iain Glen as a pair of star-crossed singles, Longing is a loving and respectful tribute to the Russian titan… fading rural aristocracy, love gone awry, quietly thwarted dreams, boozy, feckless patriarch, late nineteenth-century Russian setting – stitched together with skill and care to create a fair but slightly contrived approximation of a Chekhov play. The cast is excellent: Glen’s dashing bachelor Kolia is just the right mix of rugged magnetism and terrible weakness, and Greig is coolly charismatic as spinster doctor Varia. There is excellent comic support from Alan Cox as self-deceiving piss-artist Sergei and John Sessions… Lizzie Clachan’s summerhouse set is a thing of such bucolic perfection that the Russian tourist board might want to think about putting in a generous offer when the run ends.


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