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London Theatre Reviews

Ciaran Hinds and Michelle Dockery/Ph: Alastair Muir



Peter Flannery has turned this Oscar-winning film into a superb play- a Chekhovian thriller, if you will.

It's fairly usual for plays to be turned into films- less usual for films to be turned into plays. But that's the approach of Peter Flannery who has turned Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov's  Oscar winning 1995 film into a Chekovian thriller - if you can imagine such a thing - that's positively dripping in shadowy foreboding. It's Russia, 1936, a date to send shivers down the spine of anyone with knowledge of Stalin's infamous purges, and General Kotov is enjoying the summer heat with assorted members of his extended family in an idyllic if dilapidated dacha, Thanks to Kotov's standing under Stalin, and his impeccable credentials as a Red Army hero, that now aging family have been largely inoculated from the worse terrors of the day and they mostly spend their time swimming, singing and mourning how good things used to be - without the slightest appreciation of how bad things really are. But this melancholic tranquillity is abruptly disturbed when Mitia - prodigal son (and the former paramour of Kotov's gorgeous wife Maroussia) - returns after an unexplained 12 years absence. Initially he seems happy to play the court jester, singing and piano playing with almost hysterical fever, but that manic energy presages something much deeper, and his real purposes with regard to Kotov soon becomes frighteningly clear.

The joy of Howard Davies' production lies most clearly in his ability to combine a widescreen sense of period and place with meticulous attention to detail, with his superb ensemble cast a close second. As the mood thickens, the hyper-naturalist set conjures up with ever disconcerting intensity the surreal mood of a totalitarian state dedicated to a workers utopia, as Pioneers parade with banners past the family lounging on the beach, a gas alert sees a masked Marrousha carried off on a stretcher in her bikini and menace breathes ever more palpably among the ghostly silver birch trees surrounding the dacha. As Mitia, Rory Kinnear - much better at comedy than he is at the classic roles he is so often cast in - can't quite make the transition from clown to sinister KGB agent but he conveys the absolute sacrifice  of selfhood demanded by all absolutist regimes with a chilling, nihilistic resignation. Ciaran Hinds  meanwhile turns in a effortlessly formidable performance as Kotov in whom absolute adoration for his wife and daughter sits cheek by jowl with his ruthless dedication to the revolution, and who learns too late that all totalitarian states are dependent on the expendable nature of those who serve it. Flannery rightly anchors the play's themes in the human relationships rather than through any deeper intellectual inquiry, but his interest ultimately lies more in betrayal than in the philosophical and emotional consequences of absolute power regimes, and as a result there's very little here that feels revelatory. But as the suspense mounts the tension is akin to sitting in a chamber that's slowly filling with water, and Davies' precision-tooled cast keep you glued until the final drop.