Turgenev is having a moment in London at the moment so the arrival of the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theatre of Russian Drama for a brief residency at the St James’s couldn’t be timelier. With the National’s beautiful but uncharacteristically light and airy reworking of A Month in the Country taking a fresh approach, focusing on the emotion instead of the claustrophobic surroundings, London audiences are seeing Russian drama in a whole new light.
Ward of the Manor opens this St James’s mini-season based on Fortune’s Fool, the story of Vasily Semionych Kuzovkin, an impoverished lord, dispossessed of his lands and forced to live on someone else’s charity. At the start of the play, the beautiful Olga Petrovna has returned home from St Petersburg with her new husband Pavel Nikolaich to find Vasily still there and treated like a drunken court jester by his neighbours. Eager to be rid of him Pavel encourages Vasily to tell the story of his ruin, as the other men jeer and taunt him, but his increasing drunkenness results in the revelation of a scandalous family secret which has ramifications for Olga and her new family.
This stripped-back production, part of the Ukraine Culture Today Festival, creates quite a dark and powerful atmosphere in which the cruel treatment of Semionych takes centre stage. The scene involving the story of his life begins with much carousing and a feeling of equal joy in the wedding celebrations but very quickly takes a brutal turn as, plied with drink, Semionych becomes the butt of the joke. It’s a real set-piece moment in this production which feels so authentic that it becomes hard to watch the humour sour into degradation. As with Turganev’s other work at the National, this production successfully focuses on the emotion of the characters and their inter-relationships.
While the set is fairly minimal, using a large Roman arch to imply grand door frames, and a smattering of chairs, Maria Levitskaya’s costumes are stunning, representing both the sumptuousness of the landed gentry and the sense of hierarchy among the peasants and servants, along with the dishevelled Semionych. Without an interval, director Mikhail Reznikovich keeps scenes moving fluidly and although overlong in places the whole production is beautiful to look at and compellingly played.
The performances are very affecting, including a very sympathetic Semionych moving from boyish enthusiasm and excitement at seeing Olga again to the drunken ‘clown’ figure he resents being, before the rather bittersweet ending. Anna Artemenko as an aristocratic Olga was equally engaging flitting between the girlish excitement of a newlywed eager to please her husband, and an interesting steel as her character insisted on the truth. Oleg Zamiatin’s Nikolaich was suitable grave and stern, while the supporting cast of neighbours and servants added the humorous touches.
Credit also to the male and female translators playing every character and relayed to English ears via individual ear pieces. It does distract a little and given the volume of words it’s impossible for the translators to relay the tone of the actor, but on the plus side having a special earpiece does make you feel like you’re in Quantum of Solace having a secret Spectre meeting at the opera. Although it drags somewhat towards the end, especially the scene re-enacting the past, it’s a treat to see original Russian drama with all the customs and traditions that entails. More than anything it leaves you with some classic philosophical lines to ponder on the way home such as ‘death is a fisherman’ and perhaps most fittingly for this play ‘life is a hard path of endless rejection.’ A memorable production.