The Kreutzer Sonata

Hilton McRae and Sophie Scott in 'The Kreutzer Sonata' Photo: Simon Kane

Hilton McRae and Sophie Scott in 'The Kreutzer Sonata' Photo: Simon Kane

Tobias Beer, Sophie Scott and Hilton McRae in 'The Kreutzer Sonata'. Photo: Simon Kane

Tobias Beer, Sophie Scott and Hilton McRae in 'The Kreutzer Sonata'. Photo: Simon Kane

Either by twist of programming fate or design, Irish playwright Nancy Harris is making a splash on the London theatre scene in early 2012. At the same time as her new play Our New Girl premieres at the Bush Theatre, her adaptation of Tolstoy's notorious novella The Kreutzer Sonata is being revived at the Gate Notting Hill, in advance of a March run at La MaMa in New York (funded in part by Culture Ireland). Though the Bush and the Gate are small theatres, they are important ones, and it is rare indeed for the same writer to be showcased at both simultaneously.

One of a number of director-led reinterpretations of classics commissioned in recent years by the Gate's co-artistic directors Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami (who directs here), Kreutzer is an intense, thoroughly-conceived theatrical experience. In Tolstoy's novella, a "nervous and taciturn gentleman", Photo: Simon KanePozdynyshev, enters a conversation between strangers about the nature of marriage and love on a long train journey. Abruptly, by contemporary standards, he reveals who he is and the nature of his interest in questions of conjugal affiliation.

Very wisely, Harris and Abrahami ease us a bit more slowly into this information, at the same time implicating the audience in Pozdynyshev's storytelling. The tiny stage is kitted out as a railway car, and it is as if the journey has already started as we enter. Actor Hilton McRae is onstage, fussing with the contents of his pockets, as Carolyn Downing's sound design simulates the rattling and wind-rushing of the journey. "Forgive me", the man says, looking at us with a slow, sickly grin that put me in mind of Seuss' Grinch. It's already clear that forgiveness is going to be hard to come by in this world.

The intimate nature of the theatrical encounter and the attention to detail already established cue us that his seemingly random flitting between conversational topics in fact contains significance: A famous violinist from Paris is going to be playing in the area. Many people love concerts, but not him: "An evening of music is like an evening spent at a brothel." He proposed to his wife on a boat and she said yes: "All women want a mate. Better to be a corpse than a spinster." He's had a lot of women, the first time in a brothel. He told his wife about his sexual history two weeks before they married, and she cried for days, which he liked because it proved she was pure. Finally, about seven minutes in, the final vital clue is dropped: "I was acquitted, just so you're clear. No need to change your seat."

Photo: Simon KaneCreepy, right? Exactly. In the next 50 minutes we discover what changed his view of his wife's purity so radically that he felt compelled to murder her, a story that draws together the already-established themes of music, desire, suspicion, and misogyny. The brilliant stroke of Abrahami's direction is how she uses the staging of music as a binding element: Pozdynyshev started to suspect his wife when she, a keen amateur pianist, took an interest in a professional violinist visiting the area. As he recalls this in the real time of the stage performance, the back wall of Chloe Lamford's set becomes translucent and we catch glimpses of actor/musicians Sophie Scott and Tobias Beer playing music together and then embracing. Are these Pozdynyshev's memories, or his delusional fantasies? This is a productive and never-resolved ambiguity underlined by the spectral nature of the staging. What pushes Pozdynyshev over the edge to violence is a chamber performance of the titular Beethoven sonata that the wife and violinist play after a dinner party, which convinces him that they are lovers. The beauty of the music as played by Scott and Beer is undercut by the nastiness of Pozdynyshev's interpretation of it.

Tolstoy's novella was banned in Russia and America because of its sexual content, though he claimed he wrote it to advocate abstinence, since pursuing the carnal always leads to no good. Today it comes across as an extreme but cautionary tale about a continuum from male admiration of women to a drive to possess or even destroy that object of desire. But this is not preached about: the key to this production is in its suggestive, indirect nature that extends from the adaptation and direction to McRae's focused, fastidious, even slightly camp manner and delivery. It's an impressive exercise in stylistic containment that (oh rare theatrical feat!) lasts exactly as long as it needs to. It reveals rising star Harris to be as subtle an adaptor as she is an original new writing voice.

Karen Fricker is a lecturer in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is deputy London critic for Variety, US.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Kreutzer Sonata by Nancy Harris, adapted from the novella by Leo Tolstoy

6 Jan - 18 Feb, 2012

Produced by Gate Theatre, Notting Hill
In Gate Theatre, Notting Hill

Directed by: Natalie Abrahami

Set and Costumes: Chloe Lamford

Lighting Design: Mark Howland

Musical Direction: Tom Mills

Sound Design: Carolyn Downing

Movement: Kate Flatt

Projection: Ian William Galloway

Film: Dan Stafford-Clark

With: Hilton McRae, Sophie Scott, Tobias Beer.