On Monday, I saw Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre. Although it felt more like a Sunday afternoon, watching three hours of one of those Channel 5 movies. You know the type: romantic drama come comedy. Literally today’s one reads, ‘An accountant takes over an advice column, and falls in love with one of her correspondants’. Change a few words and you get the plot of this show: ‘A tutor takes over the tutelage of a young master, and falls in love with one of his employers.’
And there’s nothing really bad about a story like that. There’s just nothing good about it either.
The staging in this production is so so. I’m normally a fan of the National’s use of staging, and The Motherf**ker with the Hat impressed me with its simple fire escapes which created a sense of space. Here, they’ve gone for a similarly stripped back approach, using glass panes which raise and descend. The result: a pretty bland, two-dimensional framing. The onstage seating for actors between scenes is being used more and more frequently and has been utilised better, e.g. the Donmar’s Coriolanus also starring Mark Gatiss. I did like the staging at the start: a large red door illuminated against a black backdrop. And I think the main reason I liked it is because it reminds me of Monsters Inc! Remaining on stage throughout the entire production, it seems to represent an elephant in a room, the place where illicit affairs take place, its presence acknowledged but never spoken of.
The saving grace of this production is its excellent cast. Amanda Drew’s Natalya serves for an impressive mistress of the house: treading the line between hysterical, funny lines and hysteria or madness itself, Drew’s final scenes are so raw. It’s an odd character, one who we are encouraged to sympathise with for feeling unloved by her husband, and yet she behaves in a similarly loveless manner to Rakitin, played by John Simm. Simm plays somewhat of a straight man, and his blunt sometimes sarcastic characterisation shines against the other sometimes hyperbolic side characters. In what is a comedy, Simm provides a moment of quiet tragedy: the scene in which he denounces love and the ruin it causes is so moving, and reminds me of Romeo’s ‘misshapen chaos of well-seeming form’ speech. Also noteworthy is Royce Pierreson’s Belyaev, a young love full of energy, passion and love or rather lust. The double act of Mark Gatiss’ Shpigelsky and Nigel Betts’ Bolshintsov make for a formidable comedy duo, and Gatiss’ scenes as an inept but honest suitor were particularly memorable.
This adaptation is billed as an exploration into love:
Over three days one summer the young and the old will learn lessons in love: first love and forbidden love, maternal love and platonic love, ridiculous love and last love. The love left unsaid and the love which must out. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
What results is a philosophical, moral musing on love and its destructiveness, the hints of which are subtly laced throughout. Unfortunately, any notion of subtlety is completely destroyed in the final lines, which deliver a heavy-handed verdict: playing a game of cards, the old tutor tells his protege, ‘now, you must have three hearts’. I mean really?! This suggests: 1) you don’t have confidence that you’ve conveyed your key message well enough, so you cram a really explicit reference in the final lines, or 2) you don’t have confidence that your audience has understood the subtlety of the piece. Aka you think they’re idiots!
An enjoyable if inoffensive night out with an impressive cast, but one which cannot make up for a poor, heavy-handed ending. Weirdly, I left feeling like I’d just watched a Russian version of Moulin Rouge! Less, ‘the greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return’ and, in their own words, more: ‘Never love or be loved’!
Three Days in the Country is playing at The National’s Lyttelton Theatre. Tickets can be booked up to October 21st 2015 via The National Theatre website.