Has Englishman Patrick Marber written and directed the most Russian play ever?
Triple distilled and freely adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s sprawling 1850 comedy of manners ‘A Month in the Country’, Marber’s ‘Three Days in the Country’ doesn’t pussyfoot about with its extreme sense of elegy. Melancholy music and dusky lighting permanently envelop the action on an isolated Russian estate, and if you’ve see any of the great works of Chekhov et al you’ll recognise the characters immediately. There’s the beautiful lady of the house (Amanda Drew’s Natalya), trapped here in a loveless marriage; there’s her brilliant, sardonic friend (John Simm’s Rakitin), madly in love with her but entirely unrequited; and for light relief there’s the daft local doctor (Mark Gatiss’s Shpigelsky), funny, but doomed to a bittersweet end.
Compacting these characters’ lives and loves down to a svelte two hours 15 minutes (the original is double that) does occasionally give ‘Three Days in the Country’ the sense of almost being a checklist of The Sort Of Things That Happen In Russian Plays without a whole lot of extra breathing space. But Marber and his cast respond with intensity, atmosphere and some phenomenal acting.
Simm’s blazing, self-lacerating late monologue in which he lays bare the emotional ruin of a life of unrequited love is just astonishing stuff, like a pillar of sad fire, burning up the stage. Bumblingly eccentric and slightly self-loathing, Gatiss is just perfect in his two big set-piece scenes, especially his hilariously formal attempt at a proposal to Debra Gillett’s Lizaveta. And Drew is splendid, with the air of some magnificent, dangerous beast of the taiga restlessly pacing in an ornate zoo.
Marber also brings one of his trademarks to bear, something I’ve rarely seen in Russian plays: an undercurrent of genuine eroticism, the sense that it’s not just ‘love’ clouding these people’s emotions, but its darker, dirtier cousin lust. It’s not overstated, but it adds to the feverish intensity of it all. There’s also some absolutely belting gags – you’re never too far away from a laugh with Marber, even if they might make you wince.
I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’d rather see the same company tackle ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but there’s a lot to be said for ‘Three Days…’s pared down purity – painful and potent as a glass of neat, chilled vodka, downed in one.