Saturday 16th July, matinée
We can’t believe we have left it so long to go and see Greg Hicks on stage after seeing him in Little Eagles, an intriguing play about the Russian Space Race, five years ago. Having said that, at least ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ offered us just over ninety uninterrupted minutes of Hicks alone on stage (with live musical accompaniment), in the intimate Arcola theatre. And to top it all, this is genuine original Tolstoy.
Based on a 1890 novella which was almost immediately censored in both Russia and America, the drama is set on a train, where a man named Pozdnyshev tells us how he murdered his own wife. He is quick to explain to his audience of fellow train passengers that he was acquitted of the crime, so they needn’t move away. But as the narrative progresses, the comfort of his imaginary companions is clearly not his priority as he gives us an account that literally pulls no punches.
In her adaptation of the novella, Nancy Harris has avoided the temptation to ‘flesh out’ the drama by bringing the other characters onto the stage (except as projected by the musicians who give us a live performance of the eponymous piece). She keeps a single narrative voice, and the result is a powerful portrait of a man who has completely internalised the values of a paternalistic society and yet still sees himself as a victim. In some ways he is, although not in the way he thinks. A prisoner of his own rigid beliefs, he seems like a man incapable of being happy.
The narrative is simple, concrete and clear, and at times painfully detailed – a confessional story which makes the central character frighteningly plausible, whilst filling us with dread as each mundane occurence foreshadows something darker.
Greg Hicks raises solo drama to a new level here with a compelling performance. There is barely any set (just a couple of benches and some clever lighting which suggests a train carriage), a few props which take on a grim significance at the end, yet he conjures the whole world of his doomed marriage, from the romantic boat trip where he proposes, to the domestic milieu, the little details which fuel his jealousy and the distorted inner world which compels him to act on it. The biggest compliment we can pay to Greg Hicks is that he seems to have no technique at all. He is Pozdnyshev, and this is the closest we could imagine being to joining a murderer in his cell. Better in fact, in that he makes his strange compulsion to confess and extraordinary insight and eloquence seem like the most natural thing in the world. The performance is flawless and utterly gripping, to the extent that we were propelled back out into the sunlight feeling emotionally and physically turned over.
All we can say is, this was well worth the wait, a brilliantly tight production from Director John Terry given an extra touch of class by pianist Alice Pinto and violinist Phillip Granell. It was Tolstoy’s wish to have the story performed with live music, such a powerful transformative force did he believe it to be, and it is hard to disagree with him.