Not exactly Chekhov: William Boyd’s ‘Longing’ at the Hampstead Theatre

Saturday 2nd March, 2013

Seeing the name ‘Iain Glen’ in the same sentence as Chekhov again after seeing him in a thrilling production of Uncle Vanya at the Print Room, we didn’t need much persuading to book for ‘Longing’, William Boyd’s adaptation of two Chekhov short stories, and the nearest thing to an undiscovered play we were likely to get.  The lengthy returns queue when we arrived at the Hampstead Theatre confirmed that we were not alone in being intrigued at the prospect, and with a cast including Glen, Tamsin Grieg and John Sessions, we were eager to see the result.

In many ways this production is almost more Chekhovian than Chekhov himself, with all the recognisable elements immediately present.  The Doctor (this time female); the overworked lawyer who can’t find time to be happy; the pampered wife who must face losing her family’s estate, and of course her sisters.  There is also some politics thrown in with a character who has defied his middle class father to work with his hands.  We would never have known that this was based on two short stories – they have been cleverly intertwined and realised as a drama.  We don’t know much about William Boyd as a dramatist, but from watching the TV adaptation of his novel ‘Any Human Heart’, with its delightfully self-deflating ending, we should have known that this adaptation was unlikely to deliver the subtle emotional wrench that comes from spending four acts with characters whose situation may not change, but who tend to change us.

At two hours, this is a comparatively slight piece, a stroll round the block rather than a long walk through the Cherry Orchard, and ultimately, the characters don’t have time to engage us, and the plot is too simplistic, both in terms of action and emotion.  Without enough subtext or back story, it is too easy to say ‘so what?’ to the wistful ending.

Having said that, the cast exploit the play to the full, teasing out every emotion and opportunity for humour.  This was the first time we had seen Tamsin Grieg on stage and she certainly proves worthy of the praise which seems to have been heaped on her in recent years.  As Varia, the Doctor who briefly hopes for a second chance at romance, she delivers a pin sharp and witty performance, never letting you forget what is bubbling underneath, and allowing us just enough emotion to sense the toll that years of repression have taken.  As the object of her affection, Kolia, Iain Glen rises to the occasion, especially when his animosity with Sergei comes out, but ultimately we felt that he didn’t get the opportunity to sink his teeth into a character who appeared to have no real objective.  Alan Cox as Sergei, the profligate husband, is pleasingly pompous with a dissolute charm and unwarranted optimism in the face of adversity.  The sincerity of his belief that he is just an idealist adds to the exasperation he causes.  It is a breath of fresh air to see John Sessions back on stage as the shamelessly ‘nouveau’ Dolzikhov.  And on that point, only Sessions seemed comfortable with the Scottish accent which some of the cast were inexplicably given.

We are sure this production will attract a lot of interest, but ultimately we’d probably opt for an actual Chekhov next time.

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One Response to Not exactly Chekhov: William Boyd’s ‘Longing’ at the Hampstead Theatre

  1. John Branch says:

    I’m glad I read this, because it reminded me of an idea I hadn’t yet written down, to adapt a Turgenev story. However, it also suggested to me that sometimes stories ought to remain stories. Thanks for that.


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