Afterplay review: Brian Friel taps into his inner Chekhov

Derbhle Crotty and Denis Conway reach deep for this portrait of middle-aged despair

 Derbhle Crotty: capturing her character’s rich history. Photograph: Bryan Meade

Derbhle Crotty: capturing her character’s rich history. Photograph: Bryan Meade

 

Afterplay

Gate Theatre

★★★★

Brian Friel was often described as the Irish Chekhov. In his plays from the 1970s, in particular Living Quarters and Aristocrats, his study of loneliness, decay and the disappearance of a way of life chimed with the melancholic languor of Chekhov’s masterpieces. Indeed, Friel would prove himself to be an adept translator of the Russian’s work, offering versions of Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya among other English-language adaptations of Chekhov’s plays. It is with true Chekhovian spirit, then, that Friel approaches Afterplay, which takes two minor characters from Chekhov’s canon and allows us to realise the more subtle tragedies of the Russian master’s dramatic worlds.

We first meet Sonya (Derbhle Crotty) in a moment of aloneness, sitting at the table of cheap Moscow cafe, reimagined as a warped purgatory in Francis O’Connor’s effective design. Director Mark O’Rowe allows us enough time to observe her and make our judgment before the drama begins: even her posture exudes defeat. After a while she is joined by Andrey (Denis Conway), struggling with a violin case, a bowl of soup and a tattered briefcase under his arm.

They strike up a casual acquaintance that soon deepens into more heartfelt revelation. She is a landowner burdened with an unprofitable estate. He is a down-at-heel musician with an alcohol problem. Both have been betrayed by life and by love, the details of which offer a rich postscript to Chekhov’s plays.

The real beauty of Afterplay, however, lies not in its intertextuality but in its richness as a stand-alone piece. It works just as well as a universal portrait of middle-age despair as a coda to Chekhov’s earlier work, so even if you have never witnessed Masha’s heartbreak or Uncle Vanya’s decline, you will find much to connect with in this portrayal of life in its brief moments of happiness and longer moments of disappointment.

The actors reach into a deep well of emotion to capture their characters’ rich history. Conway’s bright “effervescence” is anchored by an undertow of sadness in his smile, while Crotty, face unmade, is only half-present; even as her eyes rest on Andrey, her attention is directed elsewhere. “A complete break with the past – that would be such a release,” she fantasises, and yet you cannot quite believe that this would be a welcome thing. Ends Saturday