The Kreutzer Sonata, Gate Theatre, London

4.00

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.

To 5 December (020-7229 0706; www.gatetheatre.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected