Longing, Hampstead Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Chekhov is amongst that very rare breed of author who is a genius in two distinct forms – the play and the short story. Michael Frayn, not un-incidentally a fine translator of Chekhov, is another such.

And now William Boyd is putting in a bid to join these thinnish ranks with Longing – a debut drama from the ersatile and prolific novelist in which he has adapted and run together one of Chekhov's longer and better-known prose fictions “My Life” and one of his more obscure but autobiographically revealing stories “A Visit to Friends” which is, in certain respects, an embryonic Cherry Orchard.  

I sat through through the resulting piece in a mood of deep respect but I found that I couldn't surrender to it. This is no fault of Nina Raine's wonderful production which finds, releases and expertly shapes the baffled tragicomic Chekhovian energies in the dramatised situation. 

And the actors are uniformly splendid. A superlative and surprising Vanya for Lucy Bailey last year, Iain Glen offers a penetrating portrayal here of the kind of moulting heart-breaker who can't, as we say these days, “commit”. And Tamsin Greig is quietly devastating as the pragmatic, lonely doctor, Varia. I love the faint glint of arrogance she gives to the masochism with which the character presses the romantic claims of a younger rival and does any actor stub out cigarettes with a more expressive bleakness than this splendid performer? It's good to see John Sessions back on stage, too, as a rather oily arriviste.

The trouble is that the play itself, abounding in overt points of similarity the canonical Chekhov dramas, feels, as a result, strangely repro- and ersatz. “We can only be minutes away from a samovar”,  I remarked to the lady sitting next to me as the lights came up on Lizzie Clachan's fine delapidated summer house set. I never said a truer word. 

Last year Peter Gill directed an adaptation he made in 1966 of Chekhov's short story A Provincial Life”. That had what Longing lacks – a strong sense of its own creative identity with Gill even locating and pointing up affinities between the Russian genius and D H Lawrence. It didn't seem like a graceful exercise but like a play for today.

To April 6; 722 9301