Much as translations are often at the mercy of their translator, the gripping intensity of a novella does not always have a smooth transition to the stage. The Kreutzer Sonata, originating from Leo Tolstoy’s notorious 1889 publication of the same name, has had to reckon with both.
Premiered under this dramatic guise back in 2009, the creative team have given Tolstoy’s chilling tale of jealousy and obsession an intelligent new English translation by Nancy Harris and a stage transformation orchestrated by Natalie Abrahami. Over 80 minutes, Hilton McRae’s confessional Pozdynyshev draws the audience into his tortured recollections in an extended and often fairly static monologue, but an undeniably compelling one.
One aspect in which fiction excels is the unreliable narrator, creating an ambiguity of reality that Abrahami’s production has attempted to sustain. Pozdynyshev, unravelling his memories for the audience in the suitably claustrophobic confines of a train carriage, recalls his relationship with his wife and the suspected infidelity that sours their marriage with the bitter taste of jealousy. But can we trust this clearly troubled man?
McRae’s intense and subtly layered performance seems to lean into the audience, both physically and emotionally, inviting us into his confidence. He moves swiftly from warm and conversational, throwing us smiles and knowing looks, to a man so consumed with jealousy that he shakes with the very force of it. Abrahami and McRae have balanced the performance on a knife’s edge, imbuing this man with enough comfortable wit to draw the audience in, but colouring him with more than a hint of madness as the tension ratchets up.
The accomplished design from Chloe Lamford also encourages ambiguity. Through screens at the back of the train carriage we are offered occasional glimpses of Pozdynyshev’s wife and her supposed lover, but these are distant and insubstantial enough to foster doubt, appearing as much as shady apparitions of the protagonist’s mind as solid certainties.
There is, however, a largely unexplored aspect to Pozdynyshev’s character. This is a man who many of us would change train carriages to avoid, with his fits of irrational rage and distinctly unpalatable, misogynous attitude to the sexes, yet little of this ugly, simmering underbelly is fully examined. Pozdynyshev’s words and attitude raise fascinating questions about issues such as the way in which men and women interact and the masking of base desires with polite manners, but these questions are just as quickly and infuriatingly batted away.
While the necessary compression of the text leaves intriguing shades of Pozdynyshev’s character neglected, the great strength of Abrahami’s production is its tense marriage of music and drama. If anything, it is the interjecting strains of violin and piano that caress the drama out of what could otherwise be stubbornly untheatrical.
Abrahami has cunningly cast the score as antagonist to Pozdynyshev, an accompaniment that McRae reacts to with rising agitation, either struggling to drown it out or becoming drowned in the music himself. Just as Posdynyshev himself adamantly believes, music in this production becomes a force to ignite passions, be they sexual or homicidal.
Quietly unsettling and engaging, this version of Tolstoy’s novella departs without ever venturing down a number of neglected avenues, but its crescendo is thrilling nonetheless.