Theatre Review from the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev. Royal Shakespeare Company, touring.
Standing in the queue for interval refreshment I couldn't but overhear the conversation. "Isn't she awful?" said the woman to her friend. "Terrible," came the reply, "simply terrible. She's so selfish."
At one level this seemed an appropriate reaction. Natalya Petrovna, wife of wealthy Arkady, is self-centred, scheming and manipulative; a woman only too aware of her power and influence, and with a ruthless inclination to use both for her own ends. And predictably, because this is a nineteenth century Russian drama constrained by the conventions of the time, having decided that she is in love with her son's tutor, she sets in train a series of actions which are to have calamitous consequences for most of the household.
Put like this Brian Friel's adaptation of Turgenev's play sounds much like a trite Mills & Boon paperback: a view which is encouraged by the synopsis given in the programme. "Both Natalya and her ward Vera fall in love with the young man: Natalya entranced by his youth and energy but deeply confused by her own reaction, Vera awakening to her first adult emotion."
Fortunately Friel's dialogue is much more weighty and substantial than this kind of hushed tone would suggest. Full of irony and no little cynicism it paints, for those inclined to look beyond the immediate, a mordant picture of a society hastening towards instability: of landed gentry who live shallow, empty lives; local dignitaries trying to ingratiate themselves with their lords and masters; and of apparently feckless servants. As Natalya and her household pursue their dull, impoverished lives, a crippling sense of listlessness is evident. It's a picture of bourgeois life that Chekov was later to paint even more vividly in such plays as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.
It is often observed, I think validly, that people's reaction to experience—whether the shock of being declared redundant, a newspaper photograph of some member of the royal family skiing in Switzerland, or—in this instance—a play about a family of Russian landowners in the 1840s—will depend upon what they bring to the experience. Thus a trade union negotiator going to see the redundancy of some union members in the context of local and national demands for labour, the state of the economy etc; a particular employee is going to view his or her redundancy as a personal calamity; and a member of the Socialist Party is likely to place both points of view in the context of an over-arching understanding of how capitalism works.
So, too, Turgenev's play. It is suspect that some of the audience saw the play almost exclusively in terms of a "human interest story"; the particular tale of a wife of a wealthy Russian landowner, her ward, and her son's tutor. Others in the audience, familiar with other plays by Turgenev and Chekov, perhaps saw in the lives of Arkady and Natalya much that reinforced a more general picture of life in Russia in the nineteenth century. Whilst those disposed to analyse events on stage in the light of other perspectives might have reflected further. About the way that nineteenth bourgeois life imprisoned not only the working class, but also—at the level of being usefully involved in life, and of using their skills and talents to achieve personal satisfaction—many of the bourgeoisie, men and women alike. About the similarities between Natalya and some of Chekov's and Ibsen's heroines, and the way that women's abilities were demeaned by bourgeois life. (Natalya's only task is, seemingly, to choose the menu for dinner.) And about the way that capitalism breeds selfishness, as surely as a tropical swamp breeds mosquitoes.
This is the second time that Brian Friel has adapted Turgenev for the stage. I remember seeing Friel's play of Fathers and Sons, "after the novel by Ivan Turgenev", when it was produced at the National Theatre in 1987. On that occasion Friel, so it seemed to me, managed to place his characters in a much more multi-dimensional context, so that the audience couldn't but be aware that in some significant sense the various protagonists were not only speaking for themselves, but also as representatives of particular classes and groups. I judge Friel to be less successful on this occasion. In spite of a quite magnificent cast and an admirable production, the audience—encouraged by the programme note—was apparently being invited to see the play in uni-dimensional terms. As a result I concluded that whatever the two friends I heard talking at the interval paid for their admission and refreshments, they were finally being short-changed.