Theatre: Tolstoy The Aldwych, London

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The Independent Culture
Performing the title role in Tolstoy at the Aldwych, the celebrated Broadway and film actor F Murray Abraham (Salieri to Tom Hulce's Amadeus) kept putting me in mind not so much of the great man himself as of a present- day American guy under the fond illusion that he's Tolstoy in the way that some cranks believe they are Elvis or Napoleon. But then James Goldman's play is the victim of a similar syndrome: it imagines it's a play.

The proceedings take place in 1910, the last year of Tolstoy's long life. Dressed in a belted peasant blouse and clutching a full chamberpot, he is first seen in a job demarcation dispute with a perplexed servant. "You know better than to ask," he explains patiently. "You empty yours; I'll empty mine. Both of us are free; that makes us equal." Some of us are evidently more equal than others, though, for the chamberpot chore winds up being left in the white-gloved hands of the underling.

Tolstoy, the landed nobleman, was by this date well embarked on a programme of renunciation of property and literary estate. With his shaggy grey locks and beard, Abraham bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Stephens's Lear and, as George Orwell pointed out, there are strong correspondences between Shakespeare's play and Tolstoy's life. Both illustrate the dangers of giving away your land "as a roundabout way", in Orwell's words, "of getting an advantage for yourself" and both show the bitter family recriminations that ensue. Tolstoy's fateful flight across country and his death in the tiny house of the station master at Astapova has, likewise, a more than spectral resemblance to Lear's experiences on the heath and in the hovel.

You get no sense here that there might be some comparability of scale between the folly and the grandeur of these two men. This is partly the fault of Abraham's rather cutesy performance, which lacks intensity, magnitude, and a feeling of the accumulated weight of years. In the kitschest moment of Jack Hofsiss's largely dire production, Tolstoy is even seduced off his deathbed by a phantom gypsy girl for a whirling balalaika-backed dance recalling his old sinful ways.

The woefully bitty and unfocused play would sabotage even a great performance, however. Characters read out from their diaries, but of the writings that give Tolstoy his claim to genius we are given no adequate taste. So you're more than a little baffled by the war over the author's soul waged in the play between his distraught, devoted spouse (Gemma Jones), who was the midwife of his novels, and his possessive, manipulative friend and editor, Chertkov (Matthew Marsh), who wants complete control over the diaries and late philosophical works. Why, you wonder, are they battling to the death over this hirsute, unremarkable bloke in a peasant costume?

"Do you embody your beliefs or is your life a farce?" asks Tolstoy's cruelly overshadowed son (nicely played by Adrian Lukis). As served up by Goldman, the life is neither farce nor tragedy nor any of Polonius's compound-categories. It's just a mess, like the design. The last new piece at the Aldwych was Fields of Ambrosia; this, another American try-out, is "Fields of Ripe Corn".

n To 27 July. Booking: 0171-379 3367