Brian Friel, we might suspect, took a note or two from Anton Chekhov. The same elegiac air seems to drift through both writers’ worlds. More overtly, Friel adapted several of the Russian playwright’s works and even wrote this curious one-act for the Gate Theatre in 2002: an imagined meeting between Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andre from Three Sisters. So is this a sly study of characters in fiction or a case of a fan running away with his imagination?
This revival as part of the Gate’s Beckett Friel Pinter Festival (Beckett’s First Love was seen last year) doesn’t over rely on Chekhov’s original plays. Director Mark O’Rowe’s spacious and assured production thoughtfully treats this as a new introduction.
In a Moscow café, Andrey (Denis Conway) joins Sonya (Derbhle Crotty) after meeting her the night before. “We talked about living alone and how to cope with it,” recalls Sonya, somewhat addled (she produces a bottle of vodka several times throughout). Those already familiar with the original plays may have their suspicions confirmed: things haven’t changed greatly for Chekhov’s characters since last we saw them.
Conway’s Andrey, a gentle stranger and a stealthy comic, has found the means to dealing with his wife’s death: he’s a busy violinist in a production of La bohème. Crotty’s Sonya, however, confronts her crumbling estate with a face full of troubles, forcing a painful smile at a mention of her late uncle’s lover, with whom she shares the same age.
O’Rowe stages the action somewhere almost ethereal. When Andrey brings up his sisters’ philosophy – the wait for an authentic life to begin – we look upon Francis O’Connor’s café set, its stretching patina mirror reflecting the surroundings. Another realm of possibilities is on the horizon.
This, one of Friel’s last plays, over-embellishes in places (it often falls on Crotty to measure the more purple lines) but despite its indulgence it still finds nice tension between outward appearances and inner lives. We watch Sonya and Andrey unwind their lies one by one with careful distinction between fiction and fable: the latter, we’re reminded, comes with moral instruction.
That suggests some chance of transformation for both characters before they part ways. Sonya may resolve to live a life of fortitude instead of happiness but Sinead McKenna’s lighting lingers generously on the sight of Andrey writing, disappearing into a letter, slipping away into artifice. Both devices, Friel suspected, can keep hope alive.
Afterplay is on at the Gate Theatre in Dublin until 26th March 2017. Click here for more details.