A Month in the Country review: Getting a grip on some love angles

Turgenev’s play gets a stately pace as Brian Friel smuggles the radical energy of passion into a distinctly Irish word play

Venue: Gate Theatre

Date Reviewed: July 7th, 2015

Website: gatetheatre.ie

Phone: 018744045

Thu, Jul 9, 2015, 09:52

   

A Month in the Country

Gate Theatre, Dublin

***

Love is a game with uncertain rules and ruinous consequences in Brian Friel’s delicately amusing and elegiac version of Turgenev’s play, first staged at the Gate in 1992. “Hartz are trumpery?” asks a German tutor, Herr Schaff, over a hand of cards, apparently unsteady in the language but quite accurately summarising the play. Here, hearts are indeed trumpery, as a tangle of 12 characters risk their own in pursuits either reckless, foolish or fruitless.

At one point, Nick Dunning’s bewildered head of a Russian estate “fashioned out of a wilderness” is stunned to realise that he occupies one point of a love triangle. If only it was that simple. He is actually one corner in a “love dodecahedron”, where few romantic angles are reciprocated.

Aislín McGuckin’s Natalya, elegant and jaded, is married to this absent eccentric, toying instead with the ardent affections and suffocating attentions of Michel (Simon O’Gorman), while longing for Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn), the callow young tutor to her girlish ward, Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley).

Passions run high on the Islayev estate, which seems to produce little else; they brood, multiply and finally erupt. To this end, Francis O’Connor’s intriguing set collapses interior and exterior spaces.

Multiplying the proscenium of the Gate stage into a series of retreating frames, he turns the theatre into a hall of mirrors, allowing trees to break up through the floorboards. “Your exquisite nature is a savage,” McGuckin’s Natalya chides O’Gorman’s Michel, and the production seems to agree with her: This wilderness is ready to reclaim us all. The performance slaloms, though, never wholly convincingly, between the forced gaiety of bucolic escapism and a more threatening upheaval of desire.

Director Ethan McSweeny maintains a stately pace for a drama of romantic and linguistic entanglements, one that smuggles the radical energy of passion into a distinctly Irish word play. Peter Gaynor’s Schaff may be a comic caricature in a cartoonish Van Dyke beard, but his regular confusion of “lust” for “love” comes closest to expressing that subversion.

Elsewhere, in the unsentimental pragmatism and calculated good humour of Mark O’Regan’s Ignaty, comes the clearest prefiguring of Chekhov, and a Russia that will soon sweep away the idle gentility of the leisured classes. “I clown for them because that masks how deeply I detest them,” says Ignaty. Is it coincidental that his courtship of Ingrid Craigie’s spinster Lizaveta, conducted without bluff or ceremony, seems somehow more stable amid the play’s escalating melodrama? Or that a love between two servants, culminating in shared duties, seems the most sincere?

All around them, love is a form of madness: a “catastrophe” that makes “the unreasonable perfectly reasonable”. It even sends both Natalya and Michel skittering into tormented, split-psyche monologues, unable to reconcile their public and private selves. Those who love without reservation are the fortunate ones, the play reasons, something that Lizaveta, short on illusions, seemed to understand right from the start, playing her hand as well as she could: “I’ll hazard the only heart I have.”

Until Aug 21