A month in several countries at once

A Month in the Country Stratford Swan Jesus My Boy Apollo, W1 The Merchant of Venice Barbican, EC1
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There's more than a whiff of The Graduate to Turgenev's A Month in the Country. Natalya, the mistress of the house, falls in love with the young tutor, who has comes to teach Vera, her ward. Vera falls in love with the young tutor too. The two women have to battle it out. The older woman moves in with an accomplished ruthlessness, freaks him out, and he bolts. 30 years ago, it would have been a nice vehicle for Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman.

Michael Attenborough's RSC production acutely contrasts the world that separates the older woman from the younger one. Both female performances are terrific. Sara Stewart's sensual and manipulative Natalya pouts, swishes her dress, and drops teasing remarks. Catherine Walker's Vera is fresh, innocent, and with no side. She beams, laughs and flies a kite. Walker's emotional naturalness suggests a considerable future. As the object of their affections, Jack Tarlton's Aleksey is a puppyish figure, full of weak smiles and bright-eyed hesitancies. Still, I didn't quite see what his secret with women was.

Brian Friel's new version of A Month in The Country is "after Turgenev". The idiom is Irish. The accents are Irish too. "Our caddie", for instance, is "Arkady". But locations change meaning in two ways: both where it's set and where it's seen. Watch an Irish version of Turgenev in Ireland and you imagine Friel is bringing it closer to home. Watch an Irish version in Britain, and you think Friel is pointing up particular correspondences. But watching an Irish version with Russian named characters performed in Stratford-upon-Avon is slightly weird. I wish Friel had gone for broke and turned Moscow into Dublin, and Natalya into Niamh.

Technically, Turgenev has one central point to make about love. The moment a person grabs someone in their arms to whom they are not married, someone else is going to walk through the door. Time and time again, A Month in the Country proves this tough moral. Early on, Attenborough injects a little too much unearned brio in to the action, but the plot soon catches up with the cast's level of attack, and the evening absorbs us completely.

Tom Piper's designs feature a hammocky sheet hanging above the stage and a white sheet hanging as a curtain at the back. In this pristine environment, the period furniture looks as if it could be on loan from the Ideal Home Exhibition. It would certainly fit in the back of a transit van. Just as well, as in the spring this company will spend several months touring round the country before taking it for a month in other countries. It plays in rep with Troilus and Cressida. As you move from one production to the next, it's a real pleasure to see this company reveal other strengths and talents. If you are going to see one (which I would recommend), then see both (which I would recommend more).

Jesus My Boy, a warm, seasonal show in the West End, would drive Scrooge nuts. In this one man show, written by John Dowie, Tom Conti plays Jesus's Dad: the father, that is, who did the carpentry, not the one who made the world. Jesus My Boy is an amiable entertainment - slightly underpowered and rudderless - that trades on Conti's unstoppable charm.

Dowie's script relies for its humour on the discrepancy between the Biblical legend and homely down-to-earth reactions. The baby is born in Bethlehem. Joseph admits, "I was hoping for a little girl." The Three Wise Men bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. Joseph thinks: "You couldn't find a rattle?" And so on. With these gags, Conti's Joseph looks as if he shouldn't be journeying back from Nazareth to his birthplace in Bethlehem. The guy hails from Brooklyn.

In Tom Kinnimont's unfussy production, Conti gives an impeccably tidy, laid-back performance with neat visual details keeping the narrative in focus. When he puts on his high-pitched Mary voice, so that the Messiah's mother can show the Messiah's father how to get the legs of a table to be the same length, Conti's Mary gets a laugh by pausing for a moment before sawing a leg and carefully tucking an imaginary lock of hair behind her ear.

The shoulder-shrugging humour bubbles along when Conti takes on the early domestic stuff. As the story develops, the pose gets harder to sustain. The stand-up routine tries to deepen its hold on us, as Conti chokes back the emotion and brushes away the tear. But in just 70 minutes it's a bumpy ride for the audience to go all the way from cuteness to the Crucifixion.

A doctoral thesis that's yet to be written (as far as I know) is the impact of weather conditions in the English Channel on the repayment of bonds in Venice. If only one of the ships belonging to The Merchant of Venice hadn't gone down on Goodwin Sands, then Julian Curry's Antonio wouldn't find himself stripped to the waist with Philip Voss's busy Shylock, pointing a sharp knife at his scrawny breast.

By this point, Curry's Antonio isn't the only one in a certain amount of discomfort. Phrase after phrase leaps off the stage and makes us nervous: "Call the Jew"; "a gentle answer, Jew"; "art thou contented Jew?", and so on. The characters on stage make no distinction between the man and his race. One achievement with Philip Voss's Shylock is to make us see vividly the flaws in the man.

In Gregory Doran's production, which has transferred to the Barbican from Stratford, the designer Robert Jones conjures up a damp, shadowy Venice with rippling light playing against slimy black brick walls. As a director, Doran can do colour. He spreads a mass of gold coins across the stage during the court scene and when Shylock falls to the ground he slips and slides on the money. A masked carnival elaborately separates Shylock from his daughter.

I'm not sure Doran can do suspense. The first two suitors we see visit Helen Schlesinger's cool articulate Portia (to guess which casket is the right one) have a fancy-dress air to them, which punctures the tension. While at the pivotal point in the court room scene, when Shylock learns he mustn't take a drop of blood, some distracting staging skews the moment.

What's mostly persuasive is Shylock's possessiveness. He can't let anything go: whether it is his daughter or the bond. In Voss's performance the flipside of possessiveness is a vengeful petulance. The action of the play then dispossesses him (in its own vengeful way) of daughter, money and religion. Voss is also a bit of a showman. He's possessive about attention too. There's a feminine portliness to him as he bustles around, his hands folded across his stomach, dramatising his own situation. Deep inside this Shylock, there's just a hint of the panto dame.

'A Month in the Country': Stratford Swan (01789 295623) to 20 February; 'Jesus My Boy': Apollo, W1 (0171 494 5070), to 27 February; 'The Merchant of Venice': Barbican, EC1 (0171 638 8891), in rep to 9 March.