In the 1987 cult film, Withnail and I, unemployed actor Withnail (Richard E Grant) decries: Bastard asked me to understudy Konstantin in The Seagull. I’m not going to understudy anybody. Especially that pimp. I loathe those Russian plays. Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow.
I, too, hate the languorous morbidity of Anton Chekhov’s characters and his plays. But I have the utmost respect for Brian Friel, a dramatist whose oeuvre situates language as the true protagonist of a theatrical awakening.
What is so wondrously delicious about Afterplay – Friel’s imaginative revisiting of Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from Three Sisters – is that it requires no previous knowledge of Chekhov, but simply a look into the lives of Sonya and Andrey – older but possibly none the wiser – if they were to meet in 20 years time.
It is a late afternoon in 1920s Russia when Andrey (Rory Keenan) breezes into a Moscow tea-room and recognises Sonya (Mariah Gale) as the woman he spoke to the night before. He seems eager to rekindle their conversation, while she is distracted and less eager to engage. Perhaps it’s because she carries a burden of responsibility as caretaker of a crumbling estate once managed by her beloved Uncle Vanya.
Andrey, although tragically widowed, seems to be living a much more productive life. He is a violinist with a successful orchestra and plays at a noted opera house, or so it seems. He speaks of his sisters, one of whom killed herself after her tragic affair with Vershinin, a reference to Masha in the Three Sisters.
And so, nearly the first half of this one-act play is taken up with a tedious update of how Andrey and Sonya have moved on from the ending Chekhov bestowed upon them in their respective plays – written at the turn of the 20th century and prior to World War I.
What has particular sizzle, however, is Lucy Osborne’s set design and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design which more than make up for Afterplay‘s slow start.
Our eyes feast on a geometrically-shaped room with widening angles, reflective ceiling and sloping floor, resplendent in magnificent ceiling-high panels of opulent silver-mirrored glass. Outside the tea-room, a glistening snow flutters and falls in varying levels of intensity throughout the play.
But something is slightly wonky in this illuminating encounter with light, height and angles that encapsulate a run-down café, and soon all becomes apparent as Sonya and Andrey drop the lie of their invented, socially-mobile lives, and tell the truth – while drinking copious amounts of vodka – of their loneliness, failures and unrequited love.
It is as if the character’s themselves refused the yoke of success and civility that Friel cast upon them, and declared their loyalty to Chekhov – cleaving once again to the painful destiny he’d carved out for them nearly a quarter-century ago. And at this juncture, the play, and its masterful director John Haidar, brilliantly shine through.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Andrey and Sonya meet by chance in a Moscow café.
Their dreams have given way to a rather different reality.
When they look in the mirror they don’t recognise themselves.
Together they catch sight of a different future.
This masterful, intricate, funny and touching one-act play by Brian Friel (Translations, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa) revisits two characters from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya.
Mariah Gale plays Sonya alongside Rory Keenan as Andrey in a haunting new production for The Coronet Theatre directed by John Haidar.
Writer – Brian Friel
Director – John Haidar
7 Mar – 4 April 2020