Very quick & short off-the-cuff review.

Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Turgenev’s play (directed by Marber himself) is slick, smooth, professional, superficial, and extremely English.

A cool set, made up of suspended perspex walls and a huge reproduction of a Romantic landscape painting, cluttered with pretty 19th-century furniture, with rustic chairs for the entire cast upstage — most of them sit there for the entire play and return to their chair after exiting. That set, those exits and entrances, and the odd funky sound effect are gestures at contemporary performance — or really, post-1960s performance. Everything else is as conventional as conventional gets.

Mark Gatiss has a lovely bit of physical comedy in the second half, when his cantankerous Doctor Shpigelsky tries to propose to Lizaveta, a middle-aged lady whose exact role or position is pretty unclear — and is severely hampered in his efforts when his back seizes up. John Simm remains pretty bland, though — like almost everyone else, he’s hiding behind the wit of the script and a shiny layer of polished irony.

The Englishness of it all! Everyone has more or less the same plummy accent. No-one moves much: sit down and say your lines; or find your light and say your lines; or stand wherever and say your lines (just not too close to the edge of the stage); and for God’s sake, don’t shuffle about. And no-one seems too keen to make much of a connection with their characters: there’s a degree of posturing, of claiming emotional distress, but it’s all so very contained, so very well-mannered, so very civilized, so, ultimately, amusing. There are some great one-liners, naturally; the best, perhaps, Lizaveta’s reason for declining Shpigelsky’s proposal: “I can live with my unhappiness. I don’t want to live with yours.” But few have any heft, and fewer have depth. That line of Lizaveta’s? Yes, it’s funny. But it’s also devastating. And last night, it wasn’t.

There is something remarkable about this kind of performance: so much about the show has a veneer of complexity. That set. The actors always on stage. The distance between performers and characters. And yet none of it actually complicates the act of performance, none of it serves as a commentary, none of it gets in the way. It’s all window dressing on a show that could have been staged without any of its 2015 trappings, but with the same ironic distance, decades ago. And that’s not to say I didn’t have an OK time in the theatre; it was just an extremely English OK time. (Which from a research perspective is useful: sure, a whole bunch of UK theatre artists are now influenced by Dutch and German ways of putting plays on stage. But that doesn’t mean UK theatre has undergone a sea change.)

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