Some of the very best evenings in the theatre happen when great acting and directing bring to life a great text, without the benefit of elaborate sets, costumes, lighting, smoke, video monitors, explosions or other diversionary tactics. Keeping it simple is often the recipe for success.
The Kreutzer Sonata at the Arcola theatre is remarkable for several reasons, but the main one is an overwhelming and formidable performance by Greg Hicks in the title role of Pozdnyshev. I've seen Hicks on stage many times at the National Theatre and the RSC, but also in obscure fringe shows, including most recently Clarion at the Arcola. But this monologue, in which he dominates the theatre for more than 90 minutes with just a pianist and a violinist, is the kind of tour de force that comes around very infrequently.
What is even more remarkable is that this production started life in a local theatre in the Cotswolds. Like most people, I had never heard of The Theatre Chipping Norton, but it's now on my mental theatregoing map, along with the name of John Terry its director. It is Terry who deserves the kudos for reviving this intelligent adaptation of Tolstoy's novella by Irish playwright and screenwriter Nancy Harris, which gives the original Russian text a lot of extra bite and erotic charge.
It's the story of a man tormented by sexual demons and overpowering jealousy, who tells how and why he murdered his wife. Hicks starts by mesmerising the audience into a degree of complicity and empathy with his narrative, which gradually acquires greater and greater tension. There are very few actors who can bring off this kind of solo show, and the last time I saw anything similar was last August in Edinburgh when I was lucky enough to see Simon McBurney's The Encounter. That had a lot of sophisticated technical elements and sound, but also featured a brilliant actor at the height of his powers.
The novella reflected a personal crisis in Tolstoy's life, as did Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, written at the time he was losing his hearing. Violinist Phillip Granell and pianist Alice Pinto, both in period dress, provide the perfect accompaniment to the play as Pozdnyshev's story works its way to a violent climax.
After the show last night Terry and Hicks led a stimulating Q & A session which discussed the relationship between the script and Tolstoy's original, and between the central character's misogyny and that of Tolstoy himself. If you want to buy a ticket for the rest of the short run at the Arcola, get in there fast.