Ivan Turgenev’s layered 1850 comedy-drama of romance and heartbreak on a 19th century Russian estate receives a spirited rendition under the direction of Ethan McSweeny.
Natalya (Aislin McGuckin) dominates the life of this country house. She is married to the older Arkady (Nick Dunning), who seems oblivious to the platonic love affair she’s conducting with his erstwhile friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman). Natalya herself has a blind spot though, she fails to spot that her teenage ward Vera (Caoimhe O’Malley) has fallen for new tutor Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn). When it’s pointed out to her, and ever-visiting doctor Shpigelsky (Mark O’Regan) approaches her with a proposal of marriage for Vera from the aged Bolshintsov (Pat McGrath), Natalya becomes consumed by jealousy and starts plotting to marry off Vera to leave herself without a romantic rival for the young tutor’s affections. Michel is unable to prevent these machinations, while Arkady’s mother Anna (Barbara Brennan), Herr Schaff (Peter Gaynor), and Lizaveta (Ingrid Craigie) have never stood up to Natalya.
[Below, Nick Dunning, Caoimhe O’Malley and Aislin McGuckin discuss A Month in the Country. Video via The Gate Theatre website.]
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Natalya’s capacity for ruthlessness, and her impulsive actions, half-explained in rambling soliloquies that anticipate Chekhov, make her at times seem like a Russian Hedda Gabler; escaping the boredom of her staid social position by lashing out at those close to her, with the only weapons she has – her barbed tongue, and her beauty. Aislin McGuckin, who delivered some Freudian takedowns in Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Abbey last summer, perfectly flits between irrational anger, winking flirtatiousness, and self-indulgent melancholy. Around her this 1992 version by Brian Friel gets much comic relief from classically bickering but besotted servants Matvey (Dermot Magennis) and Katya (Clare Monnelly) being given an Ulster twist, and Bolshintsov becoming an Irish archetype. Also on top comedic form are O’Regan with endless groanworthy puns, and Gaynor milking the Russian conception of the stage German for all it’s worth.
Francis O’Connor’s set of layered arches, which seamlessly allows scenes transition from indoors to outdoors, expresses the fluidity with which emotions can shift from ecstasy to heartbreak in this play, as well as enabling the Chekhovian stampeding about of characters. Dunning crumbles magnificently after the interval as the truth about Michel and Natalya that Arkady has avoided consciously knowing becomes inescapable. Michel starts to exude quiet wisdom, offering advice to Aleksey that he is incapable of following himself. The greatest transformation is that of Vera. O’Malley plays her initially as exuberantly innocent, but ends tearfully inquiring if Bolshintsov is the kind of man who would beat her if she failed to please him; so eager is Vera to escape from Natalya’s power, but also so aware has she become of the limited power she can exert herself while still unmarried.
Turgenev’s script at times emphasises its points too insistently, but this production of bittersweet comedy and stoic endurance overcomes those moments to be both highly amusing and quite affecting.
A Month in the Country continues its run at the Gate until August 29th.