You may have heard of the concept of an idée fixe, an idea or desire that dominates the mind, Once that idea is there, then everything that happens, no matter how trivial, will add to it and enhance the idea until it becomes an obsession threatening to overtake the thinker’s life. That is the central concept of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata being shown at the Arcola Theatre.
On a quiet train, Pozdnyshev (Greg Hicks) is sitting talking about his life and how he has ended up on this particular train. As he talks, he tells the audience more of his life. Pozdnyshev is obviously a well educated man who enjoyed his early life as a young hedonist taking advantage of his position in society to do whatever he wanted, when he wanted and with whom he wanted. That was, until he met ‘the one’ and decided he had fallen in love. Once married, Pozdnyshev and his wife have a happy life, producing five children on the way and all seems well until an old friend of Pozdnyshev’s by the name of Troukhatchevsky turns up. As Troukhatchevsky plays the violin and Pozdnyshev’s wife plays the piano, the two decide to put on a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47). As this is a difficult piece – described as impossible by some – the two of them must work very closely together and, after a while, Pozdnyshev becomes convinced that they are having an affair. Once the idea enters his head, it continues to grow becoming an obsession until it takes over his every thought and leads Pozdnyshev to finally act.
This is an unusual production of The Kreutzer Sonata in that Director John Terry has set the story as a one man show with Greg Hicks in the role of Pozdnyshev, and has provided him with accompaniment by Alice Pinto at the piano and Phillip Granell on violin playing both Harry Sever’s original music and elements from the infamous Sonata as well. I have to say, both musicians play beautifully and sound fantastic in the Arcola’s performing space. As a theatrical device, having the musicians worked reasonably well although there were times, particularly during the Sonata, when I would have prefered more music and less monologue.
Greg Hicks portrays Pozdnyshev as a very open man who has enjoyed life and has views, particularly on women who he views in a very negative and misogynistic way which are completely out of synch with today’s way of thinking. It would be easy to take the misogyny at face value and instantly dislike Pozdnyshev from the start but that would be a mistake. In fact, Pozdnyshev is a pretty likeable man and manages to get quite a few laughs out of his old fashioned attitudes. I like Greg’s delivery which was rather like normal speech, differently paced and with unexpected gaps as his mind sought for some fact that had escaped him for a moment. Greg’s voice is pleasant, easy to hear and very engaging. In fact at times I felt like I was watching a sort of Jackanory for adults – which I think would be a great idea.
Overall, this production was pretty good with a measured and assured performance from Greg Hicks whose melodic voice made it easy to hang on his every word. I liked the fact that it is never really established if Pozdnyshev’s wife was having an affair or if his obsession was simply a manifestation of his own paranoia. Nancy Harris’ translation keeps all of the richness of Toltstoy’s original story and while the language is pretty modern, this is definitely a play of its era and I’m not so sure that it should be viewed against the standards and morals of the 21st century. However, anything that mixes Tolstoy with the wonderful music of Beethoven has definitely got a lot going for it and is well worth a visit.
Review by Terry Eastham
THE KREUTZER SONATA
A man on a train is flooded with memories. Soon he is confessing to a terrible crime. But though his circumstances are strange, his claim is even stranger: that the fault lies with Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata…
Leo Tolstoy‘s The Kreutzer Sonata became instantly notorious on its publication, and was banned in both Russia and America for its radical views on sex and marriage.
For this gripping stage adaptation by acclaimed playwright Nancy Harris, RSC Associate Artist Greg Hicks (Clarion, An Enemy of the People) is accompanied by two musicians to realise Tolstoy’s lifelong wish – a performance of the story with live music.
A tale of haunting intensity, delicious humour and musical echoes of the master, The Kreutzer Sonata transfers to Arcola following a critically-acclaimed run at The Theatre Chipping Norton.
6 July – 23 July 2016