Atmospheric without ever quite becoming truly chilling, and engaging without being totally captivating, The Kreutzer Sonata is a macabre little tale of jealousy, fear and murder. The whole play is set in a railway carriage, travelling to a destination that is not revealed until the very end. The confined set (beautifully designed by Chloe Lamford) and the gradually unfolding story mean that Hilton McRae as the only speaking character has an awful lot of work to do. He is by turns nonchalant, chatty and chilling as he tells the audience (who become uncomfortably complicit) of his courting, his marriage and his conviction that his piano-playing wife is cheating on him with a violinist friend. It’s no great spoiler to say that she comes to a sticky end, because we are never in any doubt that that’s where this is headed when he casually says “I was acquitted”, apropos of nothing.
Director Natalie Abrahami sustains the tension well, coaxing many nuances of mood from McRae. Nancy Harris’s adaptation of the Tolstoy novella upon which this is based is nicely poetic, with the distinct rhythm that comes from a translation. McRae speaks the words with a slightly odd inflection, but with enough passion and flashes of instability to convince us that he is quite capable of calmly murdering his wife while his children sleep next door. His jealousy, his utter conviction that his wife has been unfaithful, is compelling – and makes us consider what a destructive emotion jealousy is. Abrahami’s script is deft enough that the wife’s guilt is left ambiguous. Tom Mills’s musical direction is spot-on, allowing the tension to build nicely and showing clearly how the music could inflame passions in both players and listeners. It’s not difficult to see how McRae’s jealous husband is whipped up into a rage by his wife playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with a male friend.
It’s a rather odd story, not insomuch as two men and one woman is an unusual scenario, but rather in seeing it through the embittered and rather misogynistic eyes of the acquitted husband. The wife (Sophie Scott) is never named or allowed to speak, and we see her and her supposed infidelity only through the memories and words of our narrator. He is unpleasant, abusive and ultimately homicidal, and shares his rather dubious attitudes towards women freely and without shame. His exonerating of himself – even the jury agree that he was provoked – is uncomfortable to listen to; this is a man who admits calculated murder after catching his wife having dinner with another man. The sexual overtones he ascribes to his wife’s music making and eating are Shakespearian in scope and founded on the flimsiest of pretexts. The whole macabre monologue offers us a nasty insight into the mind of a killer, and by speaking most of his lines to the audience, McRae is adept as making us part of his twisted narrative. An uncomfortable evening’s viewing.
The Kreutzer Sonata is playing at The Gate Theatre until 18th February. For more information and to buy tickets, see the Gate Theatre’s website.