The Kreutzer Sonata
by Leo Tolstoy
Adapted by Nancy Harris
Sometimes it helps, when writing our little critiques, to sum up a play in an imaginary news headline. In this case, "Councillor stabbed wife after finding her with piano tutor" Or maybe not ... For like most news stories confined to a headline and a few paragraphs there's something more to this case.
That passenger, opposite you in the train, turns out to be the released local government official. Why has he been released so early? And his defence, the provocation of his wife seems a little rich. .
Pozdnyshev (Greg Hicks), part of the landed gentry and trained in law, buttonholes you in the carriage chugging across the Russian countryside. At first he's intent on emptying his pockets - the Swiss fob watch, the silk handkerchief, the expired first class train ticket.
It's a virtuoso piece for an actor - a monologue play driven by music and with much in common, we thought, with Robert Browning's My Last Duchess where the power of art spills into real life - but through an unexpected byway - with tragic results for the woman.
When the novella, which writer Nancy Harris adapted in 2009 for this monologue, was first published in 1889, Tolstoy, the father of 13 children borne by his long suffering wife Sofiya, found himself at the centre of a storm. Indeed there seemed to be almost a tug of war between admirers such as the Tzar himself and the condemnation of Russian and American censors.
And just as the Russian ruler and societies based on an institution of marriage, which Tolstoy viewed as destructive, were at odds over a piece of art, Pozdnyshev is split. Over his not unusual first sexual encounters in whore houses before meeting an innocent wife in an arranged marriage whom he first views as a timid gazelle trained to entrap and then, as the years progress, as a coarser creature.
We have to admit it took a while for us to feel caught up in this monologue - it had the feel at times of a radio piece. It took the combination of Beethoven's radical sonata with its violent duelling and sexual undertow and a surge of words turned into actions to turn it all around into a thrilling crescendo.
Backed by pianist Alice Pinto and violinist Phillip Granell, the mania of Pozdnyshev, clearly driven insane by jealousy yet ironically in his acquittal protected by the law, does indeed tear down marriage as a financial and dynastic institution, even if it takes the ripping of a frail female body to do it.
The woman who has done her duty and given numerous heirs finally, it seems for a brief moment, could settle down to enjoy music for its own sake tutored by Pozdnyshev's childhood friend. A woman who seems wilfully determined not to live out the stereotypes of literary adulteresses but ends up a corpse with her posthumous public image shaped by her lawyer and local politician husband.
For all that, it seems an odd choice for adaptation even if it makes a change to be faced with a mad husband rather than a mad wife - in terms, that is, of playwriting tropes.
It did feel to us somewhat overlong, even though every word had its place in the build up to as guesome and visceral layer by layer description of a murder as ever we've heard in any play. But it also meant we pondered inordinately as well on matters such as, did they really have boiled broccoli in nineteenth century Russia? It's not meant to be facetious, just our honest experience of the piece.
Nevertheless in the end the clenched jaw and hurt, savage eyes of a character who could be termed a legal murderer under the direction of John Terry just about swung it dramatically for us and it's an amber light for the train - eventually - reaching the platform.