The motion of a train loosens the tongue, confides Pozdnyshev, our companion in a railway carriage for the 85 minutes of this extraordinarily compelling stage adaptation of Tolstoy's great, warped novella The Kreutzer Sonata. In Natalie Abrahami's pitch-perfect production at the tiny Gate Theatre, this figure is a kind of bourgeois Russian Ancient Mariner, compelled to re-tell the story of how he murdered his arguably adulterous wife. She may have been playing more than piano with a newly arrived violinist, who had been a childhood friend of Pozdnyshev. Emphasising the subjective nature of the protagonist's testimony, this couple are seen here fitfully illuminated behind a scrim either making music or love in candle-lit flashes that are like the lingering neuralgic throb of an obsession that has survived Pozdnyshev's acquittal for homicide.
This week saw the transmission of Hilton McRae's brilliant eponymous performance in the television drama The Execution of Gary Glitter. He is on equally virtuosic form here in an expertly understated portrayal of a man who is both a bracing radical thinker and a quietly twisted monomaniac. Usually in monologues of this kind, you know where you stand in relation to the speaker and to the author's intentions. Here, though, you feel that Tolstoy has lost control of reader/spectator response; it's that which makes the show so incorrigibly alive. Some of Pozdnyshev's sentiments have a proto-feminist ring – the idea that marriage is licensed whoredom; the notion that women will never be free as long as they are chained to the charm offensive that is their traditional lot. But, rather as with Strindberg, you feel that with friends like these, women scarcely need enemies. These forward-looking views are distorted by backward-looking misogynist views about society's need to save women from their manipulative, man-destroying methods.
McRae rarely raises his voice; he often keeps his cigarette-clutching hand close to his face in the manner of liars; he flashes smiles of watery radiance that betoken the kind of assumed complicity with an interlocutor that is actually a form of defensive blackmail. From time to time, he seems to "come round" from the low-key trance of his discourse and to break cover with some hard comment about his brute circumstances as a newly freed prisoner. There's a balefully beautiful moment when he implies that he only possesses what he stands up – or, rather, mostly reclines – in and fishes a few bits and bots out of his pockets, producing touchingly the little metal yo-yo of one of his bereaved sons.
Timing is of the essence in music and in life, our protagonist avers. (It was with the hideous punctuality of future disaster that the violinist turned up out of the blue on their doorstep at that particular moment of marital disharmony and at the split-second that the wife returned from a ride looking ravishing.) Timing is also crucial in comedy and McRae paces to perfection Pozdnyshev's bilious musings on culture and sexual politics. It is "Better to be a corpse than a spinster" he declares with an off-hand matter-of-factness as though proposing that it is better to commit suicide than let your life-insurance lapse. And there are some great pot shots against the power of music here, its potency both conceded and bitterly resented. "An evening of music, to me, is like an evening in a brothel. You pay your money; you perspire – there is a vague feeling of release... and you return to life as it was, a bigger fraud than before."
In real life, Pozdnyshev is the sort of man who would drive you to pulling the communication cord after ten minutes tops. Here, thanks to the alchemy of art, you are content to be his fellow-traveller for nearly an hour and a half.
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