THEATRE: Power of Darkness Orange Tree Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Where Tolstoy was concerned, precept didn't always match up with practice. After his religious conversion, he may have urged intellectuals to copy the simple, wise way of life of the peasantry but this airy idealisation kept getting tripped up by brute fact. In James Goldman's recent biodrama, the aristocratic genius, in full peasant regalia, was seen wrangling with a perplexed servant over which of them should have the honour of emptying his chamber pot. "You empty yours; I'll empty mine. Both of us are free; that makes us equal." Some of us more equal than others, however, for having unburdened himself of this piety, Tolstoy, with majestic obliviousness, proceeded to leave his full pot in the servant's capable hands.

In Power of Darkness, his best play, now engrossingly revived by Sean Holmes at the Orange Tree, Tolstoy's theoretical veneration of peasant life is almost wholly set aside as he trains an unsparing gaze on the ugly, superstition-ridden reality. It's a story of how adultery leads to avarice, murder, further adultery and infanticide before redemption is found in confession and repentance. In its portrayal of a marriage unravelling in the shadow of a crime, and in its depiction of the waking nightmare of a guilty conscience, this dark, intense work invites comparison with Macbeth and Zola's Therese Raquin.

Anisya (Katrina Levon), the wilful second wife of a well-to-do, ailing peasant, has started an affair with his husband's handsome young labourer, Nikita (Dermot Kerrigan). She is incited to murder her husband by the poison-dispensing Matriona, Nikita's ruthless mother who, in Colette O'Neil's excellent, calmly implacable performance, masterminds evil in the soothing commonsensical tones of a wise old granny who knows what's best. This incongruity is particularly chilling in the fourth act. By then, the couple are married and have got the money, but Nikita is drinking heavily, hates his wife and has impregnated her simple-minded, hostile stepdaughter (Lise Stevenson). So now Matriona has to supervise the dispatching of a baby.

Having skilfully projected the shiftiness, cocky swagger and underlying weakness of the irresponsible, philandering Nikita, Kerrigan does as good a job on his existential crisis, as he shoots back up from the cellar where he has reluctantly taken the still- living bundle, haunted by the sound of its little bones crunching as he crushed them. It's a great scene, Nikita's anguish played off against Anisya's vindictive satisfaction that he is now as guilty as she. Tolstoy's didactic Christian intentions in reducing Nikita to a state where he needs to take full blame and shrive himself publicly are all too evident. But not, ironically, to the peasants at which the play was aimed. "What can I tell you Lev Nicholayevich?" said one, quizzed as to the meaning. "At first Nikita managed his affairs cleverly, but in the end he proved to be a fool..."

To 31 May (0181-940 3633)

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