A Steppe In The Right Direction

Patrick Marber cuts Turgenev back to the essentials while Cumberbatch triumphs in a muddled Hamlet

Theatre
Pent-up energy and underlying despair: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet (photo: Johan Persson)

Turgenev’s epic study of Russian rural doldrums, A Month in the Country, often runs to four hours on stage — so long that, as a Russian theatre critic once sighed to me, it can feel like two months in the stalls. Patrick Marber, playwright-turned-adapter, wisely chose not to subject the National Theatre’s audience to that. He has culled the story of love and heartache among the landed classes of the mid-19th century to just over two hours in a production intelligently stripped back to its essentials. But the spine of the story remains — an intergenerational comedy of errors, based on infatuation with a newcomer shared between a mother and her stepdaughter.

Gone are the lush, naturalistic productions of the 19th-century motherland — here the landscape is as grey as a winter morning on the steppes and most of the cast remain on stage, watching the action when not participating in the emotional turmoil of a backwater estate perking up when a newcomer rolls into town.

Amanda Drew’s Natalya is a grade-A troublemaker, first guiding her ward Vera (Lily Sacofsky) to the attention of the hapless young tutor Belayev (Royce Pierreson), only to plot to marry her off to a vile local squire and nab the house guest for herself. This is only mildly absorbing. As so often in Turgenev, it is the woes of the older generation that move us most. The marvellous John Simm shines as Natalya’s sarcastic admirer, and Mark Gatiss as the roguish local doctor crashes his way through a thoroughly unromantic proposal while prostrate with back pain.

Marber’s satirical gift is on show in the whip-smart exchanges between the characters. We do lose something of the feeling of immersion in sadness which is so crucial to Russian drama. But if Turgenev is Chekhov’s tougher, younger sibling in terms of the greater harshness of his outlook, that is well reflected here. 

One of the most troubling, fascinating plays I have seen this year is Duncan MacMillan’s new work on addiction, People, Places and Things at the National’s snug Dorfman Theatre. On the face of it, it is a story about the turbulence of drug addiction and the hard path back to abstinence. More importantly, it pricks our conscience about the fine line between compulsive behaviour that is rewarded, from workaholism to pursuit of professional or financial success, and that which we pathologise.

Emma (a raging Denise Gough) is by turns attractive, wheedling and confrontational with her long-suffering therapist. There are, she points out, “substances  I can put into my bloodstream that make the world perfect”, and the reason she is resisting is that “you want to take it away from me”. That perfectly inverted logic might come from Hamlet.

Jeremy Herrin’s fast-paced direction complements Bunny Christie’s chilly modern therapy-centre set. Emma’s hallucinations are by turns beautiful and fearsome: a Greek bacchanal for the 21st century. But has she become addicted because a sober response to the world is too hard for some people to bear? Or because she seeks to externalise blame for weaknesses and self-indulgence? That questioning balance is fin-ally held throughout and MacMillan is perceptive on the way 12-step programmes echo the paths to redemption of religious faiths.

He is the lesser-known half of the team (with Robert Icke) that adapted Orwell’s 1984 for the stage and in People, Places and Things he deploys the same aptitude for depicting extreme psychological stress in a way that speaks to us halfway-normal audiences. If the boot on the face here is chemical, the distress is just as palpable — and brilliantly conveyed.

Finally, you didn’t think I would leave Standpoint’s Cumberbatch-worshippers without a word on his Hamlet — the seminal play about mental imbalance and its relationship to the outside world? As Nick Kenyon, the Barbican’s cheery boss, put it to me, nothing could go wrong with the venture, since it was a commercially unsinkable product. Cumberbatch’s extraordinary popularity as the BBC’s obsessive-compulsive eye candy in Sherlock ensured disproportionately female scrapping for tickets.

Cumberbatch acknowledged the difficulties of acting under such pressure when he begged his fans not to film the recording, after having been distracted by glowing red lights in previews. Since then, the performance has rounded and improved. We meet the prince rooting in distraction through his possessions with an old turntable crackling in the background — and a mood of edgy distraction is Cumberbatch’s keynote.

Purists will not like the shifting around of text — it comes to something when “To be or not to be” has to be restored to its rightful place after chaotic previews. Conceptually, the production is a mess, veering hard between ironic reprising of familiar lines, acted as if in quotes from a school textbook, and urgent feeling. Pent-up energy and underlying despair are, however, Cumberbatch’s strengths as an actor, and the most moving moments are when he makes the vast Barbican stage a panopticon of human suffering and mortal malaise.

Even an actor of his charisma, however, often struggles to prevail over the sundry distractions heaped in the show. Es Devlin’s design is imposing but accompanied by too much slow-motion and too many freeze frames. Hamlet is a busy enough saga without overloading it with so many gizmos, even for a production  squarely aimed at cyber-age audiences.

I liked Lyndsey Turner’s fevered Elsinore: no cold fortress, more a stately home, full of the diversions of prolonged adolescence. Hamlet wears a David Bowie T-shirt and coat with “King” emblazoned on it, while Ophelia (Sian Brooke) pursues her love affair as an obsessive, self-centred youth — a harsh interpretation, but nicely turned. Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius is restrained and upright and Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude pleasingly neurotic, behind the grimacing mask of royalty.

What’s not to like? The action speeds by, as well it might after a cut to under three hours, rendering some of the Dane’s internal deliberations a shortish memo-to-self. The production’s bankable star shines throughout. It is a very good Hamlet, but without the precision or clarity of vision to be an outstanding one.

It does, however, show Shakespearean potential in Sherlock. He should try a second-tier Shakespeare drama, without the whizz-bang distractions, and show us that the nation’s tormented heartthrob can do more than the other big guy’s greatest hit.