Theatre: Like a horse and carriage

The 19th-century Russian dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky poked fun at the greedy middle classes of his age. Alan Ayckbourn has done the same with ours. So who better to adapt Ostrovsky's The Forest, and bring it on home to a South Bank audience? By Paul Taylor
Click to follow
There are theatrical marriages made in heaven that take an unconscionably long time to be solemnised on earth. It was, for example, three decades before anyone thought of putting The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy on the same bill. The moment it happened - creating big box-office last year - you could scarcely believe that this pair of tricksy one-acters from the Sixties had ever managed to live apart. Now, at the National, another platonically perfect union is about to be sealed.

First, though, a quiz. Who is being described here? He is a rare case of a dramatist also heavily involved in the running of theatres. His speciality is (tragi)comedies about the mercantile middle-classes and he succeeded in polishing off over 50 of these, at the rate of about one a year, despite all his other theatrical duties. He is particularly sensitive to the plight of women, and a psychologist might well attribute this imaginative affinity with the underdog to the fact that he found himself, as a child, in the tricky position of stepson.

It has to be Alan Ayckbourn, doesn't it? Well, no, actually, for that CV also snugly fits the great 19th-century Russian dramatist, Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-86). It is his play, The Forest, which opens at the Lyttelton on Thursday in a new adaptation by Ayckbourn. The author of A Family Affair (1849) links up, at long last, with the author of A Small Family Business (1987).

The broker for this meeting of true minds is the production's veteran director, Anthony Page, whose credits in the past decade include the multi- award-winning Doll's House with Janet McTeer. This reviewer must also admit to a small glow of vindication - back in 1991, I hazarded the notion in The Independent that Ayckbourn and Ostrovsky were like twin towns.

The parallel breaks down, however, on the issue of censorship. Focusing on a chief clerk who, with the ostensible aim of helping him defraud his creditors, dupes a greedy master into signing over all his assets to him, Ostrovsky's first comedy, A Family Affair, received the following accolade from the official censor: "All the characters in the play ... are first rate villains. The dialogue is filthy. The entire play is an insult to the Russian merchant class." For the devastating accuracy of his social portraiture, the playwright was rewarded with dismissal from the Civil Service and an 11-year ban on the play. Ayckbourn may have had his problems with Scarborough City Council, and its preference for public lavatories over renowned local theatres, but he's never had to put up with that.

Ironically, Ostrovsky enjoyed a brief vogue in England in the late Eighties, the decade when greed was officially sexy and heartless, conniving go- getters were positively flattered to see themselves excoriated on stage and screen. Around the time of Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, the Russian dramatist was serious business, with Cheek by Jowl's viciously exuberant staging of A Family Affair and the celebrated Old Vic production of Too Clever By Half which, on then fashionable vertiginously skew-whiff sets, showed us the corrupt hypocritical blockheads of the Moscow elite through the eyes of a young, two-faced climber and lampoonist.

Another penetrating comic snapshot of a society in awkward, money-obsessed transition, and with a young woman as chief victim, The Forest is one of a number of Ostrovsky plays that celebrate the glories and absurdities of the acting profession. Hence its multiple appeal to Alan Ayckbourn, the baiter of bourgeois narrow-mindedness, the bashful feminist and the man who had an early "brush with Donald Wolfit", the egregious actor-manager who hired him as a very green ASM and had him, among other tasks, hunting around for holy water to top up his gin when they were performing in a church.

Set on a country estate in the Volga district, The Forest centres on Raisa Pavlovna, a tight-fisted widow and wealthy landowner (played by Frances de la Tour) who has set her devious cap at a dim but dishy young man half her age, and accordingly resolved to settle as little money as possible on her two dependents, an absentee nephew and a young adopted niece who lives with her and is treated as a charity-case-cum-servant.

Anthony Page sees the play as partly about "the habits of tyranny" that could not be shaken off at the time. The Forest was written in 1870, nine years after that social earthquake, the emancipation of the serfs. Exquisitely alert both to the comedy and the pain of it, Ostrovsky's play presents you with people who are fumbling to adjust to a world which is at once radically altered and disconcertingly the same (the lot, say, of household serfs, had not changed).

Rather than attempt to cope with new responsibilities, Raisa busies herself selling off strips of her forest to Vosmibratov, a serf turned substantial merchant: as Page points out, "10 years before, she wouldn't have let him in the house". It's not hard to hear faint pre-echoes of those axe blows at the end of The Cherry Orchard (written 33 years later), or see Vosmibratov as a forerunner of Chekhov's Lopakhin.

But it's a mark of the like-mindedness between the adapter and the material that Ayckbourn should admit that his treatment of this character was influenced by his own Sidney Hopcraft, the genially ghastly property developer whose rise and rise is charted in Absurd Person Singular. He also has great fun with types such as Milonov, a rich landowner whose convoluted speeches trip over themselves to come across as impeccably liberal, PC, and up- to-the-minute, but only succeed in identifying him as an (in Ayckbourn's words) "unreconstructed old fascist".

Into this crabbed world breeze two itinerant thespians - a classic Don Quixote/Sancho Panza duo, one a head-in-the-clouds ham tragedian, the other a stocky, earthbound comic ( Michael Feast and Michael Williams, respectively), who turn the place upside down. Freer spirits than the pinched, stuffy landowners, they testify to Ostrovsky's amused but deep affection for actors. He gave expression to this in plays such as Artists and Admirers where the humiliating system of making performers dependent on benefit nights and on the patronage of lascivious local bigwigs is put under a critical spotlight. He also took practical measures to raise the status of a profession which, after emancipation, was enriched by an influx of serf actors from the private theatres on the estates. In 1865, he founded the Actors' Circle which started the ball rolling for what became the Moscow Art Theatre, home of Chekhov, whose flair for capturing tragicomic human inconsistency is often prefigured in The Forest.

Ayckbourn jokes that his private title for this project was Wood For The Trees, and Page reveals that the adapter's first impulse had been to shift the whole play to Yorkshire. Happily, he thought better of this. From a reading of the script, I would guess that audiences will be able to see not only the wood for the trees, but Ostrovsky all the clearer for Alan Ayckbourn.

`The Forest' opens tomorrow at the National Theatre (0171-452 3000)