As both a great theatre director and a dramatist of extraordinarily distinctive gifts, Peter Gill is one of Cardiff's most celebrated sons. But it's only now, when he's pushing seventy three, that he has got round to staging a piece in his native city.
Presented under the auspices of the National Theatre Wales at the handsomely redeveloped Sherman Cymru, the occasion is auspicious in more ways than one. Here, with a masterly production of A Provincial Life, Gill wears his two creative hats simultaneously and reminds us of his crucial role in modern theatrical history. The play is a beautifully empathetic version of a long short story by Chekhov; Gill adapted it in1966 at a time when he was, as a pioneering director, championing the superb, Chekhov-influenced stage plays of D H Lawrence.
Preoccupied with questions such as how to reconcile the conflicting goals of social equality and the cultivation of individual talent for the general improvement of the human lot, the piece has had only one previous performance – on the set of another play at the Royal Court. This may be because of the resources it requires. Gill now employs fifteen excellent actors and an ensemble of twelve who shift the episodic action forward with graceful choreography through a series of sparely but handsomely evoked locations on Alison Chitty's almost abstract blonde-wood set. Played with a charismatically sweet-natured smile and poignancy of spirit by Nicholas Shaw, the central character is Misail Alexandrovich Polznev, a young man who rejects his inheritance as the son of a fearful martinet of an architect. He adopts the life of a workman before moving to the country to run a school on the estate of the higher-born, dilettante wife ("Is it true that you spend on yourself only what you earn?") who eventually deserts him.
Both in text and performance, A Provincial Life is brilliantly attuned to the tragicomic Chekhovian way this plan rudely backfires in a Russia where intellectual workers are an invention of intellectual writers and where high thoughts are "always broken by visions of rissoles and bowls of porridge" and by the prevailing stench of routine corruption. Highly recommended.
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