Brian Friel’s most explicit homage to Chekhov opens a season of work at Sheffield Theatres dedicated to the Irish playwright. It’s one of the most pleasing features of their programming, this zooming in on the work of a particular playwright, using both the Crucible’s spaces to explore a body of work alongside a programme of complementary events, talks and readings. Previous seasons have been dedicated to the work of David Hare and Michael Frayn and the Friel season will also include revivals of Translations and Wonderful Tennessee.
First performed in 2002, Afterplay sees Friel imagining a meeting between two of Chekhov’s best known characters: Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from Three Sisters. Set 20 years or so after their respective stories ended, they meet by chance in a down at heel Russian cafe, and proceed to tell each other their life stories – with certain embellishments on both sides.
It’s an intriguing idea, the ultimate act of fan-fiction in some senses, suffused with Chekhovian melancholy, poignant yet also witty. The play works on its own terms, both as a character study and as a window onto a wider Chekhovian world, making reference to Yelena, Masha and other characters from the original plays. Even if you’re not familiar with these works, the interplay between the two is engaging enough that it soon ceases to matter.
Niamh Cusack makes a wistful Sonya, still pining for Mikhail. At first, she’s hesitant to talk to Andrey, but as the vodka melts her defences, it’s a delight to see her slowly loosening up before, inevitably, pulling away at the last moment. It’s a masterful performance, subtle and unshowy and Cusack makes the most of the intimate surroundings of the Crucible’s Studio space.
Sean Gallagher is more effervescent and comic as Andrey, but with a sense of sadness always there under the surface. As his tales of performing in an orchestra are gradually revealed as being “small fictions and fables”, both characters are obliged to confront the “tundra of loneliness” which is threatening to engulf them.
Afterplay has the potential to be a bleak piece, but the chemistry between the two performers counteracts this. At just 50 minutes in length, it’s a focused and tight piece of writing, directed by director Roisin McBrinn in an unobtrusive manner, allowing the characters room to breathe. Paul Wills’ set, with its ornate windows, evokes early 20th century Russia, and the piece as a whole has an elegance and tenderness.