AS THE audience takes its seats for Hettie Macdonald's engrossing production of Ostrovsky's The Storm, a thurible is swinging vigorously centre-stage, a stifling fug of incense filling the theatre. The Church appears to have engulfed the world in these parts, proceedings canopied by a Russian-Orthodox dome. This atmosphere of claustrophobic superstition and narrow-minded conformity is crucial to the 1859 play, set among the merchant classes of the rural upper Volga.
The oppressiveness produces both a literal storm and a tempestuous spiritual and emotional upheaval in the heroine, Katerina, a young woman trapped in a passionless marriage and preyed on by a monstrous mother-in-law. After finding brief ecstatic relief with another man, she's propelled by guilt into making a public confession of her sin. Leaping into the Volga to avoid returning to the tyrannical household, she became a symbol of revolutionary protest.
Those who, like me, know this story only from Janacek's wrenching operatic adaptation, will be intrigued to encounter here characters, demoted or transposed in the opera, who colourfully flesh out the social context of the individual tragedy. There's the pilgrim, Feklusha (Maggie McCarthy), who babbles about the end of the world and airily brags that pilgrims are given six or seven devils apiece to combat because they are so holy. In contrast, the watchmaker, Kuligin (Tom Mannion), is a self-taught inventor whose protests on behalf of the peasants and intelligent schemes for creating a lightning conductor are greeted with obtuse scoffing.
As the young married couple at the heart of the play, both Susan Lynch and Paul Hilton are extremely touching. Lynch's Katerina projects the thwarted ardour of a little caged bird, without in anyway sentimentalising the role. Her Irish-accented delivery has an astonishing simplicity, humour and earthy, emotional directness. She also convinces you that Katerina's inner-life is conducted on a more exalted plain than that of the people around her. An abashed, shuffling, twisting streak of mother-dominated immaculation, Hilton makes you understand what it must feel like to be in this position. His humiliated face struggles to signal apology to Katerina when, under duress, he relays his mother's brutal command.
As the mother-in-law from hell, Maggie Steed is too much of a drag-act monster. At the climax of Katerina's confession, the stage splits and founders like the deck of the Titanic, and as her daughter-in-law names the guilty man, thunder claps and Steed is borne up on a plank in vindictive triumph. One would certainly rather swim for it than share a lifeboat with that Grande dame.
It's a powerful evening, despite the loss of unity through a cast including Welsh, Irish English and French accents. But then, an uncertainty of tone is perhaps unavoidable in a play which vacillates between tragedy and melodrama.
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