It’s clear early in the Gate’s new production that a band of Russian aristocrats’ card-playing and watercolour painting won’t relieve the terminally bored Natalya Islayev (Aislin McGuckin), who lingers frustratingly on other women: the local weavers who fascinate themselves with their stitches. Brian Friel, having adapted Ivan Turgenev’s 1872 play, may be referring to the minutiae of nineteenth century Russian drama, where, as one character famously balked in Chekhov’s The Seagull, “nothing happens”.
The subtleties of psychological realism are abandoned for broader strokes in Friel’s interpretation, and Ethan McSweeny rigorously directs accordingly. Events unfold on the Islayev country estate with the bounce of melodrama: while Natalya’s clueless husband Ardaky (Nick Dunning, anything but) tends to his landowning business, she prefers the attentions of his friend Michel (Simon O’Gorman), a floating admirer. The arrival of handsome student Aleksey (Dominic Thorburn, well-read and able) to tutor her children may mark an end to her boredom, as she falls desperately in love with him.
Arguably, Turgenev’s play shares the dualistic tragic and comedic energies as, say, The Cherry Orchard, but McSweeny leans heavily on the former, sending up bourgeois values with buffoonery that propels a group of elitists skipping silly thorough the wood. Such satire would be welcome if the staging managed to enhance that which startles: a brutally classist and sexist world.
Since returning to Ireland after stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, McGuckin has been in the employ of some of the country’s biggest theatre companies. She’s proven herself time and again an eccentrically stylish performer, and without nuance for naturalism Natalya’s indecisiveness feels trivial and not at all at odds with the society around her. There is more truthful emotion in O’Gorman, whose Michel sadly observes Natalya drift away. Mark O’Regan as the wily doctor Ignaty is as comically capable as always and touches on tender feeling while courting the companion Lizavetta, played by Ingrid Craigie. Craigie plays along just as shrewdly.
At the time of writing in 1850, Turgenev was unlikely to anticipate the overturn of the aristocracy in the early twentieth century (had he, the peasant servants played charmingly by Clare Monnelly and Dermot Magennis might be more than light-hearted stage hands). Still, the polished furnishings of Francis O’Connor’s country house set, and its residents kitted in Peter O’Brien’s crisply cut and handsome costumes, infuse enough reverence that McSweeny’s staging should at least feel elegiac when characters begin to depart towards the end. Furthermore, the tragedy that an interloper infiltrates the noble ranks of the Islayev family would otherwise be devastating, if this tonally misshapen production weren’t frivolous in its acting up of aristocratic frivolity.
A Month in the Country is playing at the Gate Theatre until 22 August. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Pat Redmond.