King's Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2009

  *** / ****

The Edinburgh International Festival continues to host the Dublin Gate’s celebration of Brian Friel’s 80th birthday with two of his Chekhovian pieces this week. The Yalta Game is an adaptation of Chekhov’s short story Lady With Lapdog, whereas Afterplay is a sequel of sorts to two of the Russian master’s plays.

Friel is often spoken of as one of the most Chekhovian writers of our time, with his sense of worlds passing away and lives which fail or refuse to keep pace with them. The Yalta Game explicitly addresses this sense of semi-disengagement. A roué seduces a young wife at the Black Sea resort of Yalta; they play the game of ascribing imaginary lives to the people they see, but also tacitly agree that this affair is an unreality after which their normal lives will resume. Afterwards, each feels on the contrary that it is that other life which is now fantastical, and yet nor do their subsequent assignations satisfy. Patrick Mason’s production is decked out in off-whites and driven at first by the breeziness of Risteárd Cooper as Gurov, until his tone grows fraught and becomes counterpointed by the growing maturity of Rebecca O’Mara’s Anna.

Garry Hynes directs Afterplay starkly, including some passages played in complete silence. It is a simple yet marvellous idea: in a shabby Moscow café around 1920, a middle-aged man and woman encounter each other. She is in town to finance a rescue plan for her small rural estate; he is a down-at-heel violinist. But she is Sonya (Frances Barber), the niece of Uncle Vanya, and he is Andrey (Niall Buggy), the brother of the Three Sisters. They recall earlier times, and extrapolate feelings and relationships from the respective narratives we know into the dramatic present. There are no surprises. But, in its discreet, slow-moving way, it is captivating. Where Chekhov showed his characters about to become throwbacks, Friel takes them forward into full-fledged but still compelling mournful obsolescence.

The King’s Theatre is rather more cavernous than the Gate, so that the pieces lose something of their chamber atmosphere. Moreover, with each play running at less than an hour, there is a slight feeling of programme inflation about the decision to present them in repertoire with 9pm start times rather than as a double bill. Nevertheless, they make a fitting commemoration.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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