Larisa and the Merchants is making its English premiere at the Arcola theatre. With a name like that, one would be forgiven for mistaking it for a band. The title is actually a touch added by Samuel Adamson, the writer of the new English version. The title of the original play, written in Russian by Alexander Ostrovsky in 1878, translates literally as the rather antiquated Without a Dowry. This bold (and effective) modernisation of the title is consistent with the fearless treatment of this text by what seems to be a perfectly co-ordinated creative team and extremely talented cast.
The company behind it all is InSite Performance, under Artistic Director Jacqui Honess-Martin, who also directed this piece. The company is best known for performances in non-theatrical spaces, such as its performance of the site-specific Smith in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum. Its sensitivity to space is evident. The staging within the Arcola Theatre’s downstairs Studio Two is simple and light, all bare brick walls, MDF and ivy. This ascetic design by Signe Beckmann is nevertheless ingenious, and allows the content of the play to shine through. Honess-Martin uses the space well, with performers flowing on and off stage seamlessly, creating a fast-paced, polished production.
Captivating sequences from movement director Anna Morrissey are well integrated into the action. They come complete with live music (headed by Tom Attwood) from Tarek Merchant and Morgan Philpott, with a virtuoso performance on the spoons from Jack Wilkinson. Both the movement and the music clearly take their lead from the play’s folk roots, and they are charged with meaning that enriches and supports the action of the play.
The performers are able and well-cast, with my personal and by no means exhaustive highlights being the enigmatic but clownish Robinson, played by Philpott, and the garishly dressed Mrs Oguldova, manipulative mother of Larisa, played by Annabel Leventon. Larisa herself, played by Jennifer Kidd, ever dressed in a virginal white dress, builds a complex character. Torn between romantic ideals of love, duty and business, and her loyalty to her mother, society and men, she nevertheless has her moments of power and humour.
The play explores issues of the objectification and commodification of women by the male characters, who are strongly reminiscent of city boys working in the financial sector, at varying levels of success and sleaziness. Parallels are expertly drawn between the marriage market of times past and today’s society, obsessed with the lamentable economic situation. The play examines what we should really value in life, despite the crippling cost of the recession for many. This play is part of a growing number of plays which respond at least in part to these issues, and it compares very favourably indeed.
This play is part of Arcola’s current diverse season, which includes both reworkings of classics and an impressive array of international theatre. Like any play written for a context so different from ours (in this case rural Russia, late nineteenth century), there is a tension between staying faithful to the text and keeping it relevant to the audience. In this production this tension is powerfully and creatively harnessed to produce a thought-provoking but eminently entertaining piece.
Larisa and the Merchants is playing Arcola theatre until the 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.