(Michael Billington's article appeared in the Guardian, 12/17.)
Ivan Turgenev has long been thought of as a one-play man who, in A Month in the Country, anticipated the delicate ironies of Chekhov. But Mike Poulton has adapted this neglected piece from 1848 and, after earlier showings in Chichester (1996) and New York (2002), it finally gets a slap-up London production from Lucy Bailey. It's no lost masterpiece, but it has two great roles and offers a scathingly honest picture of rural Russian life.
Dramatically, it is a play of two distinct halves. In the first we watch, appalled, the humiliation of an impoverished gentleman, Kuzovkin, who sleeps in the linen cupboard of a big country house. Previously tolerated as a jester, he nervously awaits the arrival of the estate's new owner, the recently married Olga, 20, whom he adored when she was a child. Over a disastrous lunch, however, Kuzovkin is egged on by a local landowner, Tropatchov, to resort to the role of resident fool: he gets wildly drunk, insults everyone and comes up with a shattering revelation about Olga herself. In the more nuanced second half, we see the consequences of Kuzovkin's disclosure, though there is no disguising the clumsiness of Turgenev's dramaturgy: there seems no good reason why Olga should miss the crucial lunch except that it makes for a strong end to the first act.