Platonov, Almeida Theatre at King's Cross, London

What's self-love got to do with it?
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The Independent Culture

Is it Platonov or is it A Country Scandal, is it Fatherlessness or is it just Play Without a Title? Most importantly, is it a one-man tour de force or an ensemble piece? Whichever, the original manuscript comprises six hours of unpolished summer-on-the-bankrupt-estate scenelets, only discovered 20 years after Chekhov's death and resurrected by the Soviet State Publishing House for the sake of completeness.

The problem with David Hare's reinstatement of Platonov as the title of this low-intensity tragicomedy – it last appeared in London as Wild Honey – is that this makes us look dangerously hard at Mikhail Vasilievich Platonov. He is an unspeakably argumentative, disruptive, belligerent know-all. And yet all the women of the district, both attached and unattached, both blue-stocking and fishnet, throw themselves at him without compunction or hesitation. So there must be some sort of roguish, Byronic charm lurking under all that washed-out sarcasm and apathy.

So the disappointment at the core of Jonathan Kent's luscious, twinkling revival is Aidan Gillen's performance in the title role. When we want to be watching gimlet wit and unpredictability, we get hectoring and bullying; when we should be basking in the irresistible charm of the philanderer, we get blunt, snatchy self-love. Gillen, late of Queer as Folk, struts around the stage, thrusting out his chin, turning out his palms, and yelling. He's dangerous, he's cynical – he's not loveable. Remember that first-year student who had to criticise everyone and everything? You know the sort.

Yet around him, we are treated to so many performances of wonderful, understated Chekhovian realism.

On the surface, Helen McCrory is giving another of her husky-voiced, muscular Russian inamoratas, but when pushed to it by Platonov's imminent departure, the vodka reveals a pitiful, needful infatuation. Jodhi May, with whom he intends to depart, reaches the evening's high point with her plans for their work-filled future life together – so passionate and so hollow.

Tobias Menzies as her cuckolded husband is near perfect, his lip stiff, yet constantly crumbling. And thank God for Adrian Scarborough as the idle village doctor, an urgently needed source of humour and lightness.

In only two aspects is the production stretched, with two differing outcomes. Hare's efficient new translation distils Chekhov's six hours down to three and a half, but the resulting material simply does not warrant this degree of numb bum – the story never develops into anything worth this kind of unremitting attention.

The stage area also seems infinite, but Paul Brown's set fills it magnificently: a field of sunflowers here, a river and beech copse there, and, in the middle, the most perfect dacha, hinging and transforming for each phase of the action. And that's without even mentioning the railway line, and the train that ploughs into the audience.

To 10 November 2001 (020-7359 4404)

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