Alexander Ostrovsky’s relatively little-known play Bespridannitsa (Without a Dowry) is scathing about the pursuit of wealth and self-gratification in place of caring about our fellow people. Ostrovsky had seen plenty of avarice during his brief time as a clerk to a commercial court in 1840s Moscow, and his disgust with Russia’s merchants is apparent in several of his sharpest plays. In Larisa and the Merchants, Samuel Adamson’s new version of Without a Dowry, Ostrovsky’s biting satire feels tailor-made for the post-crash world we inhabit today.
Larisa, a beautiful gypsy girl, is engaged to the odious local government official Karandyshev, a shabby arrangement to which she agreed simply because her family have no money for a dowry and because her real love, the aristocrat Paratov, disappeared a year before. Local merchants Vasya and Mokii Parmenvich are at once horrified and amused by Larisa’s choice, and when Paratov returns the trio set about playing with his former lover’s heart and undermining her hapless fiancé.
Adamson has made relatively few changes to Ostrovsky’s text, retaining its moral complexity and ditching some rather stiff stage directions. The cast make the most of the resulting fluidity and slightly tauter storytelling, each actor giving a subtle and well-studied performance. Dale Rapley and Jack Wilkinson make an excellent double-act as the merchants Mokii Parmenych and Vasya. In Adamson’s studiously timeless setting, Rapley’s louche Mokii Parmenych could well serve as an archetype for the City’s old-guard, while Wilkinson’s slick Vasya might represent post-Big-Bang braggadocio and self-regard. Whether this is deliberate or not, the comparison is unavoidable.
Though Larisa is treated as a plaything by the merchants and Paratov, her occasionally hectoring attitude to her ‘cockroach’ fiancé indicates that her own role in the chaos isn’t morally straightforward. Ostrovsky, seen by some of his contemporaries as a Russian Shakespeare, invokes a comparison between Larisa and Gertrude, whose own role in Hamlet’s tribulations mirrors Larisa’s effects on the men around her. Both women cause heartache, but both leave us asking if conscious agency really has much more to do with tragedy than chance and circumstance.
Jennifer Kidd makes the most of Larisa’s complexity in a powerfully emotional performance, capturing the character’s caprice and heartache with clarity. Countering this, Sam Philips excels as Paratov in a performance reminiscent of Ken Branagh at his finest, full of charm and apparent good intention masking complete moral vacuity. Together they’re an excellent dramatic pairing, well-balanced against comic roles like those of Larisa’s grasping mother Mrs Ogudalova (Annabel Leventon) and Paratov’s boorish companion Robinson (Morgan Philpott).
It’s hard to find fault with Jacqui Honess-Martin’s production, which uses the Arcola’s regrettably stuffy studio space as best it can, but at times dialogue and action is a little lost behind actors’ turned backs – a peril of the traverse stage. But as the audience reflect on the parallels between Ostrovsky’s avaricious merchants and the chaos wrought by their latter-day pin-striped descendants, such minor staging problems seem entirely inconsequential. This is a strikingly accomplished production which should bring a sadly disregarded Russian classic the attention and respect it’s due.