Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm
Reviewed by Victor Gluck, TheaterScene.net
Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, known as the Kreutzer Sonata, is considered one of the most erotically charged pieces of classical music. Inspired by it, Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, (the most Dostoyevskian work he was to write) was so controversial on the subject of lust, love, marriage and divorce that it was immediately banned by the Russian authorities.
Would you believe that a multimedia stage adaptation of this monologue would be one of the most spellbinding theater events you are ever likely to see? Of course, without Hilton McRae’s consummate performance as the narrator Pozdynyshev, philosopher and murderer, this production from London’s Gate Theatre would be unthinkable. Nancy Harris’ brilliantly crafted script includes a live performance of the Beethoven sonata played by Sophie Scott (as Pozdynyshev’s long-suffering wife) on piano and Tobias Beer, as his friend Trukhachevski (and the wife’s supposed lover), on violin. Though they never get a chance to speak, we see them reenact Pozdynyshev’s memories and imaginings, both live and on film. The Gate Theatre’s co-artistic director Natalie Abrahami has brought all the elements perfectly together for an unforgettable and disturbing evening of theater.
Both the novel and the stage adaptation are set in a Russian railroad car, most likely traveling away from Moscow, the scene of much of the action of the narrated tale. Harris has kept the cast down to three by eliminating Tolstoy’s early chapters in which an entire carriage of people debate love, lust, marriage, divorce and celibacy, revealing Tolstoy’ personal views on these subjects, that indulging in carnal lust is the root of all evil, even when sanctified by marriage. This takes away much of the philosophic and societal underpinnings of Tolstoy’s story, but Harris has something else in mind.
The dramatist has made the play more dramatic by focusing entirely on Pozdynyshev’s monologue which uses his life story as his example of the effects of carnal lust and unbridled jealousy on the relations between men and women, even in the highest circles. Simultaneously, the other two actors wordlessly, albeit accompanied by music, act out the events he recounts as well as his agitated imaginings. This is made possible by Chloe Lamford’s railway car setting whose back wall is at first a screen for the film clips of Dan Stafford-Clark and the video of Ian William Galloway. Later in the evening it becomes a transparent scrim that lets us see Pozdnyshev’s drawing room and his wife’s grand piano and witness Scott and Beer accompanying each other in the Beethoven sonata while our narrator continues his story.
When the play begins, Pozdynyshev who has been sitting in the car (angled so that he is facing the audience) addresses us as though we were his traveling companions. He warns us that he has just been acquitted so that there is no need for us to change our seats. We know from the beginning that he is guilty of some horrendous crime for which there were mitigating circumstances. He then tells us the story of his life, how he indulged in his sexual passions like all men of his generation and social class, until he met and fell in love with the innocent and lovely girl who became his wife. When they began their marital relations during the honeymoon, the new husband felt like he was defiling her every time he took advantage of his conjugal rites. For him, marriage was no better than legalized prostitution.
Eight years later, after his wife has had five children, the doctors tell her she can not safely have any more. Suddenly she becomes even more beautiful to Pozdynyshev who falls in love with her all over again. With more free time, she takes up her piano again. When Pozdynyshev’s old friend Trukhachevski, now a noted violinist, returns from Paris and looks them up, the stage is set for a tale of rampant jealousy and violent reaction. We never know if the wife and the violinist are ever lovers, but as the story is told only from the husband’s point of view, we know exactly what he is feeling at all times.
Told unemotionally in a calmly elegant and precise manner, The Kreutzer Sonata slowly causes us to realize with growing dread that we are listening to a philosopher who is also a madman. We should have been warned: one of the first things he tells us is that to him “an evening of music … is like an evening spent at a brothel. You pay your money, you perspire – there is a vague feeling of release, followed by a temporary feeling of elation and you return to your life as it was, a bigger fraud than before.” And so we are warned that music and sexual passion are inevitably linked, like in Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, No. 9.
Although McRae does all the talking, he breaks up his monologue in various ways, sometimes through actions, other times, through his acting. Again and again, he handles a handkerchief which he later shows us spread out in full. He continually gets up to take glasses of tea from a samovar on a small table under the window. He plays with a child’s yoyo. He lights a cigarette. He smiles at times, politely; at other times, he gives us more of an arrogant smirk. He strolls around the car. He removes his coat. He mops his sweating brow, and as he gets to the high point of his story, he seems almost overcome with the emotion of recalling his jealousy. Snatches of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata punctuate the action, driving it to its inevitable denouement. McRae is utterly mesmerizing, and as the story approaches its climax, you can almost hear every heart in the theater pounding in unison.
In the end, Pozdynyshev has proved that if the couple had “for once have seen each truly – not as man and wife – but man and woman,” the tragedy would never have occurred. Tolstoy’s (and Beethoven’s) Kreutzer Sonata has once again worked its magic as the authorities feared it would 123 years ago. Natalie Abrahami’s direction is seamless and graceful, never obvious or intrusive, but always working towards the common goal. The beautifully modulated lighting, in both the downstage railroad car and the upstage depiction of Pozdynyshev’s drawing room, is the creation of Mark Howland, while Kate Flatt is responsible for the movement in the pantomimed scenes that recreates Pozdynyshev’s fevered imagination.
Unlike Othello, also overcome by the green-eyed monster, the fact that Hilton McRae’s Pozdynyshev never raises his voice makes the telling of his story even more chilling. Nancy Harris’ magnificent adaptation is a marvel of economy and of subtle rewrites that place everything in the speaker’s troubled mind. Sophie Scott and Tobias Beer’s playing of the Beethoven violin sonata will make you want to hear the Kreutzer Sonata in its entirety. This is an evening in the theater you won’t soon forget.