Anton Chekov’s The Lady with a Dog, dubbed by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the greatest short stories ever written, is the seaside tale of an affair between a married Moscow banker and a much younger newlywed. Mark Giesser’s production takes creative licence with the story by transforming Dmitri to Damian (Alan Turkington), Anna to Anne (Beth Burrows) and a sojourn by the Yalta coast in 1899 to a Post-World War One stay by Scotland’s beaches. Much has been done by Giesser to flesh out the plot and transform the short into a play, however his creative licence doesn’t quite stretch its legs far enough, leading to the piece falling a tad flat.
In some ways Giesser’s adaptation creates monsters by expanding the roles of the lovers’ spouses, Carl (Duncan MacInnes) and Elaine (Laura Glover), who are undoubtedly the plays’ MVPs. Elaine, who in the original story is looked down upon by her husband for being unintelligent, is erudite and sophisticated with remarks so dry and cold that the room appears to fill with fog after every put down she espouses. She appears as a figment of her husband’s imagination, lavishing him with jibes as he mulls over his infidelity, much to the delight of the audience. It’s a shame that her character does not fully embrace the hedonistic post-war spirit that had overtaken some of her contemporaries including her husband, and equally a shame that she was limited to the un-subverted role of passive-aggressive scorned wife. MacInnes is also excellent as the wet blanket husband of Anne, who served in the war as a logistical officer and continually refers to his “war wound”, an eye that occasionally troubles him. The small-town government official with parliamentary dreams and a small secret is also another character who should have received more of a spotlight.
As for the love story between the eponymous lady with a dog and the muscovite banker, whilst in 1899 it may have shocked polite sensibilities, in 2018 the story alone is nothing to send a postcard home about. Both Turkington and Burrows give solid performances as Damian and Anna, but their sum and the depiction of their relationship lacks the intensity of a holiday romance turned full-blown love affair. As a seasoned playboy of the Scottish beach world who has ensnared many a married woman, the reason for Damian’s continued interest in Anne does not fully come across. Curiously, references to Damian being a misogynist, which the original novel heavily alludes to, are also taken out. And Anna shifts from castigating herself continually for her infidelity, to making demands that the pair make moonlight sandcastles, in a manner that is jarring rather than evoking the rush and spontaneity of a love affair. The wartime backstory bestowed on both characters, however, is a welcome addition and their discussions of wartime trauma and the difficulty of post-war recovery are some of the duo’s most emotive moments. The production also has a gorgeous art deco set, and evokes the era in a very organic way (there’s even a reference to a Buster Keaton short).
Giesser’s task of injecting a bit more flesh into a classic tale was a tough one. And he does succeed in bringing a touch more depth, creating new and interesting characters, and transposing the play to a parallel era. However, The Lady with a dog misses an opportunity to fully embrace the ethos of the Jazz Age by pushing further and extending the boundaries of creative licence more.
The Lady is a Dog is playing at the White Bear until 10 March
Photo: Andreas Lambis