Review: Longing

By John Nathan, March 15, 2013
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Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

As Donald Rayfield, Chekhov's biographer says, the trouble with Chekhov's plays is that there are so few of them.

So you can see the logic of this exercise conducted by novelist and first-time dramatist William Boyd, who has set out to do for Chekhov what he has done for Ian Flemming with his James Bond books.

But you can see also how applying a consumerist's appetite of wanting more of something that is scarce, is bound to result in something more facsimile than original when applied to great writing. And that's what happens here.

Except that, as disparaging as this sounds, the source material is so rich, the skill with which this production has been produced so high, the evening reminded me of those brilliant forgeries that sometimes send the art world spinning because the fake version is too good to tell from the original. Of course, here there is no deception.

The two Chekhov short stories from which Boyd has constructed his new play are the autobiographical My Life and the much lesser known, and shorter, A Visit to Friends. Lizzie Clachan's set - a dilapidated summer house surrounded by silver birch trees - immediately announces that director Nina Raine is going for full-on authenticity.

Or at least, something that looks like every traditional production of Chekhov ever staged. I immediately found myself wishing for something that pandered much less to expectations.

Still, thanks in large part to utterly captivating performances by Tamsin Greig as Varia, a stoically single doctor, and Iain Glen's determinedly single Kolia, for whom Varia has held a candle ever since he left to become a big-shot Moscow lawyer, it wouldn't much matter if the action took place on a set of the moon.

The main thrust of the plot concerns Varia's best friend Tania whose estate has been run into the ground by her waster of a husband Sergei. The women call upon Kolia, who spent much of his youth in Tania's summer house, to save the day.

Similar to Three Sisters, there's a nouveau rich wife who takes over the estate, and as with The Cherry Orchard, an upper-class family are turfed out because of financial circumstances.

And for those who love Chekhov, it's that constant recollection of other plays that signals that this one is not quite the real deal.

But so superbly does Raine evoke the pace, comedy and sense of longing that informs Chekhov's work, I wonder whether any declarations about the this play's inferiority is down to foreknowledge as much as anything. If the play was presented as a lost or newly discovered work, I doubt that I for one could have outed it as anything other than the very funny and achingly sad real thing. (www.hampsteadtheatre.com)

Last updated: 10:29am, March 15 2013