Every year we take an annual pilgrimage to Chichester to see a production at the Festival Theatre. This is our fifth year – and I reckon this is the second best production we’ve seen there. (The two part dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby is still tops.)
When you enter the theatre you’re in for a treat. The stage appears enormous! You see the back of the Islayev house, and the garden – and the trees! Trees shoot up from the back of the stage and their branches overhang the auditorium right up to the back row, welcoming you into this idyllic environment. You get to see inside the house, through windows, pathways round the back, and the details of the garden – real plants, a real water pump (with real water!) This is the kind of realistic staging you can imagine would have been the norm in the Victorian era. And it feels luscious.
Then you have what turns out to be a damn good story. I’ve not seen or read this play before, and I was very impressed. A bored lady of the house with a wandering eye is bewitched by the enthusiastic and unsophisticated charms of the young tutor brought in to teach her son. Unfortunately, so is her 17 year old ward, who age-wise is a much more suitable match. Problems ensue.
It’s a marvellous production. Janie Dee plays Natalya, her soul aflame with love that she knows she really shouldn’t consider, with complete conviction. You get every nuance of her emotions from her expressive eyes, the twitches of her mouth, her languid/coy/come-on body postures. Wonderful. James McArdle, as the target of her affection Aleksey, does an excellent line in gauche enthusiasm, faltering delivery and youthful charm, a Turgenevian David Tennant. You can see how he has been completely overwhelmed by his surroundings and fallen in too deep, without being able to do anything about it. Michael Feast, as the family friend Michel, who has held a candle for Natalya for decades by the sound of it, is by turn impressively forlorn, confused, distressed and decisive. Kenneth Cranham, blustering about as the incompetent and corrupt Doctor Shpigelsky, and looking like Stinky Pete from Toy Story, also gives a first-rate performance. In fact there are no weak links in the cast at all.
I don’t know if it is the brilliance of Turgenev or Brian Friel who has adapted the work for this production, but I really enjoyed the use of soliloquies for Michel and Natalya, asking themselves about their inner feelings and reactions to a situation in a way that I know I do frequently. Very believable.
I also very much enjoyed the use of British regional accents to emphasise who’s “in” and who isn’t. The well-to-do members of the household have splendid clipped southern English accents, whereas the servants are from Lancashire; and the incomer Aleksey is pure Glasgow. The other accent employed was over-the-top German by Teddy Kempner as Herr Schaaf, which was appropriate for a role whose main reason it seemed to me was to laugh at his misuse of language.
Another marvellous aspect of this production is the terrific lighting. The lighting plot takes us through all times of the day and night and plays an important part in the realism of the design. Especially Natalya and Aleksey in the moonlit garden – you could almost touch the moonlight halo that framed their bodies, incredibly effective. It’s officially fabulous.
It’s a super production that certainly deserves a life hereafter.