The Yalta Game and Afterplay

Ristéeard Cooper and Rebecca O'Mara in the Gatre Theatre production of The Yalta Game.

Ristéeard Cooper and Rebecca O'Mara in the Gatre Theatre production of The Yalta Game.

In Gate | Friel, a selection of Brian Friel’s plays are restaged to mark the writer’s 80th year and his relationship with the Gate theatre. Following a successful tour of the Sydney Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival with the help of Culture Ireland, Faith Healer (1979), The Yalta Game (2001) and Afterplay (2002) are back on home ground.

Under Patrick Mason’s direction, the action of The Yalta Game takes place around ten loosely grouped chairs. Designed by Liz Ascroft, the set anchors the otherwise uncertain geography that shifts between a bedroom, a café, and a train. Apart from subtle lighting changes, most of the theatricality is reserved for the characters’ intimate lives, and more often than not, it belongs to what is imagined rather than what is real.

Based on Chekhov’s short story Lady with the Lapdog, Friel’s play concerns a love affair between accountant Dmitri Gurov (Cooper) who holidays alone in the Crimean city of Yalta while his family remain in Moscow, and twenty-something Anna Sergeyevna (O’Mara), who has left her older husband at home while she travels with her dog. As the pair meet and separate over a period of time, their relationship changes shape and significance to the point where they question it having ever existed.

Mason’s production abstracts the space, and the dog, and in doing so asks us to take a leap of faith with the action that unfolds. However willing we may be to do this, the characters themselves are troubled by the whole nature of the illusory. Passionately invested in their love at the outset, they eventually question its authenticity. Maybe, they both come to speculate, they never met at all. Within an otherwise delicately wrought play, this substantive question still retains the power to disturb those who have thought they loved, or saw a pet where there was none. Pulsing at the heart of Friel’s drama is the idea that reality is constituted by shared fictions, and points of tension produce moments of great sorrow, if not the unravelling of the world as we know it.

While Cooper and O’Meara give assured performances, and the overall design nicely insinuates Friel’s thesis, the writing sometimes feels tight. In having the characters alternate between dialogue and narration, Friel manages to explore the difference between experience as it happens and as it is reflected upon, but at times it feels as if the degree of self-analysis exercised here keeps the audience at a distance, giving the impression that Friel doesn’t trust our imagination as much as we might hope.

Afterplay deals with similar issues, although it is an altogether more emotive and melancholic piece of writing. Here, Friel brings together two characters from different Chekhov plays - Sonya Serebriakoya (Barber) from Uncle Vanya and Andrey Prozorov (Buggy) from The Three Sisters. Twenty-five years after the original plays end, the characters meet in a moodily lit Moscow café where both are afforded the opportunity to fill in the gaps.

...juxtaposed together the plays resonate as neat, tender meditations on the relationship between fact and fiction in love, loss and theatre.
While Andrey claims to be a successful musician, and proud father of two, it emerges that he has turned into a compulsive liar who rewrites his life in order to dull the pain of his failures, and to impress Sonya. She, on the other hand, still clings to her twenty-three year old unrequited love for Astov, to the point of closing herself off to other potential suitors, including Andrey himself. Fortitude, rather than courage, is her cardinal virtue, as it guides those in despair to carry on living even in the absence of hope.

Hynes keeps her actors sitting at a table just right of centre for most of the production, and the performers do well to hold our attention for the hour. Barber is arresting as the refined but tragic would-be lover, while Andrey is her equally compelling, slightly eccentric companion.

While The Yalta Game and Afterplay are hardly as complex or dynamic as Friel’s greatest works (such as Faith Healer or Dancing at Lughnasa, for instance), juxtaposed together the plays resonate as neat, tender meditations on the relationship between fact and fiction in love, loss and theatre.

Fintan Walsh is a Government of Ireland Post-doctoral Research Fellow in Drama Studies at Trinity College Dublin.
  • Review
  • Theatre

The Yalta Game and Afterplay by Brian Friel

10 - 09 September 2009

Produced by Gate Theatre
In Gate Theatre

The Yalta Game
Directed by Patrick Mason
With: Risteárd Cooper and Rebecca O’Mara

Directed by Garry Hynes
With: Frances Barber and Niall Buggy