Arts: A month is a long time in sexual politics

IRRITABLE LASSITUDE on a great estate; an emphasis on shifting moods rather than events; chronic vacillation singled out as the key to the human condition - we have to be talking about Chekhov, don't we? Actually no, for all these features are richly evident in A Month in the Country, the Turgenev play which anticipated Chekhov's dramatic world by some 46 years.

Michael Attenborough now revives it at the RSC using a free version by Brian Friel which gives the dialogue a lively Irish rhythm. If my ears don't deceive me, though, there's an impish touch here. Jack Tarlton's baby-faced, bashfully grinning Aleksey - the tutor who bags the heart of both the bored, discontented Natalya and her young ward and unwittingly turns the household upside down before doing a bunk - is played as a Scot. Anomalous, yet psychologically convincing: it is, after all, traditional wisdom that a Scots accent could sell you anything.

The critic James Agate once wrote that all that is necessary for success with A Month in the Country is the absence of a star actor and the refusal of the company to suspend animation when the leading character speaks. Well, Michael Attenborough's production meets both those criteria - in the first instance rather disappointingly for those with memories of Helen Mirren matchlessly mercurial Natalya.

But this unevenly cast production suggests there is another essential requirement - the ensemble should have quirky personality in depth. Much the most striking performance comes from Lloyd Hutchinson, who bares the teeth of bogus chortling jollity to hilarious effects as the low-born doctor driven to clowning for the nobs as a way of concealing his contempt for them.

Prepared to sell Natalya's ward into a grotesque marriage for three horses and a wagonette, Hutchinson's quack radiates a sort of seedy cheerfulness, as though being able to smile in the face of his moral squalor was quite a mark in his favour. As Vera, the young ward successively traduced by Natalya, the tutor and the doctor, Catherine Walker is also most impressive, offering a heart-catching study in blighted innocence. Too many other characters are either under- or over-played, like Jayne Ashbourne's excruciatingly pert servant.

As Natalya, Sara Stewart is a vision of creamy skinned, gorgeously dressed loveliness, with a nice line in languid brow-cocking irony and transparent manipulativeness. True to Turgenev's understanding of human inconsistency, she can keep us guessing from one moment to the next whether she will react with spitefulness, orsolicitude. Thanks to this, the scene where Natalya sounds out her ward's feelings towards the tutor comes over like a dry run for the even greater scene in Uncle Vanya between Yelena and Sonia.

Ms Stewart never convinced me that she had genuinely fallen in love with Aleksey, so the ineffable mix in the character of play acting and sincere distress lacks a vital component. An engrossing production, but a patchy one.

Paul Taylor