Given Turgenev’s A Month in the Country has a running time of around four hours, most stage versions are a compression – they’re just not as visibly squished as Patrick Marber’s, as signposted in the changing of the name to Three Days in the Country. Running at just over two hours, his version of this languid country-house drama is still set in mid-19th century Russia, but it’s a brisk evening. Characters have a tendency to start scenes with declarations of love as straight and direct as if shot by Kolya’s toy bow and arrow. Any polite-society beating about the bush is severely trimmed. Marber, also directing here, can pull this off – he’s the man who wrote Closer, after all – and he brings a welcome modern directness of tone that’s rarely jarring.
But an accelerated timeframe means accelerated emotions, and these can become absurdly fast and overheated: love seems mere infatuation, heartbreak mere hissyfit. Turgenev’s story maybe always risks coming across as shallow, simply about love triangles: Natalya is married to Arkady, but has long continued a flirtation with his friend Rakitin; he gets usurped by the new, young tutor Belyaev – who Natalya’s 17-year-old ward, Vera, also falls for.
This version, written with Marber’s epigrammatical wit (“He’s a dullard; meeting him is the same as not meeting him”, “Everyone is a joke they don’t get”), keeps the comedy but loses depth.
The set consists of a few bits of drawing room furniture; contours of rooms are sketched by large semi-frosted planes of glass, while a bright red door offers potential entrance to erotic liaisons. The backdrop is a mazy watercolour, and the cast often sit on chairs in front of it. This looks a bit student drama, but their presence does remind the audience of the incestuous, hot-house quality of this country pile.
Performances are – mostly – strong. Mark Gatiss is a terribly comic scene-stealer as the fussily impatient, ineffectual Doctor Shpigelsky. He overplays it when his back goes, but mostly he’s a delight to watch: a pompous pedant who gleefully enunciates all his faults when proposing to Lizaveta – played perfectly spinsterish by Debra Gillett.
John Simm is a waspishly sarcastic Rakitin, his witty manner poorly masking the wounds beneath. Amanda Drew’s Natalya is dry and scornful, but also gorgeously elegant. In her mid-forties, she’s a little mature for the 29-year-old of Turgenev’s original. Instead we see her as the same generation as Rakitin, while Vera and Belyaev are another. This sets up binaries of age against youth, experience against innocence, rather than the more interesting continuum of Turgenev’s play.
Drew also tends towards melodrama – not in a bad way, for we see it as a tactic of Natalya’s. Her mannered collapsing wearily in a chair, or choked-up excesses of emotion remind one of old Hollywood stars; if it doesn’t always ring true, that’s because Natalya is a coquette, used to performing love.
Indeed, the play comes across as being as much about love’s performance as about its true nature: we constantly see people claim to be in it, persuade each other of it, argue each other out of it, but it rarely seems profound.
So what of the primary love object, Belyaev? Marber’s writing of the character is dynamic: we first hear of him leaping on the back of a cow, yet Royce Pierreson’s performance is oddly static. He also doesn’t seem remotely awkward or shy, as is the usual characterisation, instead he’s rather self-possessed. Pierreson has a still intensity, but lacks charm. It’s hard to see quite why every woman in the house is losing their head over him (the maid is also smitten).
The interpretation here is also very much that he is a calculated social climber, in love with the lifestyle and the posh house more than its inhabitants. This is one of the most interesting things about Marber’s version and one of the most impressive – despite condensing the play, he also actually adds backstory and subtly teases out subtexts.
There are humming anxieties around parenthood – both Arkady and Natalya suffering guilt over neglecting their son – and around class and status – both Dr Shpigelsky and Belyaev have hard-up pasts, and are willing to scheme in order to avoid going back to poverty.
We also discover that Vera (a robust Lily Sacofsky) is the illegitimate child of Natalya’s father and a maid – an invention which surely has huge implications for Natalya’s feelings towards her ward who is actually her half-sister. This isn’t made a big thing of, but when you stop to think about it certainly adds an additional, strange sourness to the two women’s rivalry. While Marber’s country sojourn may seem to be about surface emotions, there are intriguing clues regarding hidden depths.