After a sold out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Hunchtheatre’s adaptation of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time comes to Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. A favourite novel of second year university students in the middle of a slump, A Hero of Our Time’s cult status never really translated onto British shores, despite the novel’s global fame. Oliver Bennett and Vladimir’s Scherban’s (of the Belarus Free Theatre) adaption of the short story Princess Mary, brings everyone’s favourite superfluous man, Grigory Pechorin, into the twenty first century in a tale loaded with pettiness, frenemies and toxic boredom. The Pechorin of Princess Mary is a much easier anti-hero to take, less psychopathic than the Pechorin of Bela, with a much wider range of emotions.
A Hero of Our Time is first and foremost very cool. Painfully cool at times, making believable the effortless swag and magnetism we probably all tried to channel as teenagers but epically failed at pulling off. Pechorin’s (Bennett) demeanour is that of an early noughties rock star (think Julian Casablancas), confident, unbothered and disaffected. As the audience enters, he sits on a battered red sofa facing the wall in sunglasses and a military jacket whilst Wolfmother blares in the background. He is unphased by the audience’s entrance, not needing our registration or our validation. When he eventually rocks up to the mic to read from the source material and set the play’s scene, it’s with the affected effort of someone doing us a favour. It’s clever, ensuring that by the play’s commencement we feel well acquainted with the man who scoffs at the attention of princesses, is bored by status which he possesses in abundance, and is an all-round terrible person.
Hunchtheatre’s adaptation tells the story of disaffected army officer Pechorin who has everything but is fatally bored and frequently courts misadventure. In this story he competes for the love of a princess from Moscow whom his frenemy Grushnitski (James Marlowe) has expressed feelings for. This is despite Pechorin’s own admission that he does not “want to seduce” the princess and “will never marry” her. Whilst engaging in this plotting and scheming, he finds time to continue an extra-marital affair with Vera (Scarlett Saunders) an old flame, and then get mixed up in a duel. The majority of the play is performed with the lights up, giving us clear sight into the world as displayed through Pechorin’s acerbic lens. At times the play can be too much, a bit too shouty, a casualty of maintaining the contradictory balance of a Pechorin who is unphased by women but also madly devoted to Vera his old flame.
Bennett and Scherban’s adaptation does well to humanise Pechorin, a character whose extensive ennui always made him seem otherworldly. Humanise in this context does not mean it makes him more sympathetic, it transform into the run of the mill guy you hate. His successful seduction of Princess Mary consists of continually negging and irritating her, spouting the occasional misogynistic nugget such as “women love only the men they don’t know”. He reads to modern audiences as a byronic pick-up artist, driven to this elaborate ploy by a ridiculous schoolboy rivalry with Grushnitski. Pechorin’s torment by his old flame Vera, who is the picture of old school Hollywood glamour, demanding but oh so aloof, provides an interesting contrast to his general lack of feelings. Vera haunts him, her face projected onto a screen as we watch him scramble to meet her whenever or wherever she desires.
Princess Mary (Scarlett Saunders) is somewhat of a two-dimensional character, though well-played, acting as the symbol of propriety and desire. Her lip-synced rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ highlights how Pechorin sees her – the picture of stale manufactured perfection. The ballroom scene where she exudes exhausted irritation after being forced to endure a night continuous dancing with Grushnitki is a study in the pain of unknowingly being a pawn in the toxic competition of two deranged men. It’s a high-energy scene, reinforcing the notion that the energy of these men, though channelled destructively could be used to do so much more.
A Hero of our Time remains timeless, allowing disaffected spectators to self-indulgently revel in the frivolity of life. Much like the readers of the nineteenth century did, but with the added benefit of Wolfmother soundtrack.
A Hero of Our Time is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 15 December. For more information, click here.