At just 50 minutes in duration Brian Friel’s two-handed homage to Chekhov is a short piece. In the hands of the intoxicating Niamh Cusack and Sean Gallagher it flashes past in an instant. No sooner are you seated expectantly in the dark of the studio theatre than you are you are back in the bar euologising the virtues of these two outstanding actors for bringing to life a work of such understated genius.
As a punter, I admit, I was left thirsting for more so thankfully this was the first night of a month-long season of three works by Ireland’s greatest living playwright. It is a worthy and welcome Celtic addition to the two other previous writer’s seasons in Sheffield, both of which produced memorable theatre from the pens of Michael Frayn and Sir David Hare.
Set in a drab Moscow café sometime in the early years of Bolshevik Russia, Friel propels his two émigrés from Chekhov forward in time. Sonya Serebriakova is the spinster niece of Uncle Vanya left to manage alone the last bankrupt days of a failing family estate whose demise – and the descent of the country into future famine - is about to be hastened by the crazy advice of the new commissars who urge her to grub up her crops and plant trees.
Andrey Prosorov is the ne’er do well brother and fallen scholar of Three Sisters. It is the second and more truthful meeting between the pair. Fuelled by vodka these two lost souls, representatives of a bourgeois class about to be expunged under the failed experiments of the Soviet century, grab a few moments of comfort as they confront the “endless tundra” of loneliness they must and will endure.
Cusack is at first distracted then cautiously welcoming of Andrey as she accedes to revisit the previous night of pleasant conversation and protective lies with which each assails the other.
But bit by bit, she allows the brittle façade to crack and then shatter revealing the empty husk of her years of secret and unrequited devotion to a disappointed local doctor she exquisitely characterises as “a man of vision, close to saintliness and not always sober.”
Andrey by contrast is immediately bouncy and likeable. Clownish in his formal tails, little by little he sets about coming clean on the “tiny fables” and “fictions” he has spun to portray himself as some kind of eligible suitor during the previous night.
He reveals himself fully in the moment he angrily denounces his sisters for their “stupid” fantasies of a “Moscow dream life” – an existence which remains defiantly out of reach to them in their provincial exile. Gallagher’s crumpled face is a shattering picture of shame as Sonya, by now a little drunk, is emboldened by his embellishments to stay on in Moscow and treat herself to a night of Puccini.
Sad and desperately tender, this was a brief overture to what promises to be a rewarding season.
Afterplay, Translations and Wonderful Tennessee at Sheffield Theatres to 8 March