A man sits in a railway carriage in a badly fitting suit, and tells his story to whoever will listen. "Everyone's a music lover," he spits.
And from these simple elements there builds a spellbinding and shattering piece of theatre – a 90-minute monologue in which the early life, marriage and recent history of the rail passenger uncoil before our eyes, like the viper that the man increasingly resembles.
This amazing theatrical feat is undertaken by the masterly actor Greg Hicks, whose performance as an overbearing tabloid newspaper magnate in Clarion was last year a huge success for the Arcola, where this new production of The Kreutzer Sonata deserves to be another massive, must-see hit.
The rattle of the train and the occasional creaking and splintering of Harry Sever's incidental music alone accompany the narrative, which starts innocently enough. We can dimly see a pianist and violinist beyond the train compartment; it is only towards the end of the play that they launch into the great Beethoven duet that inspired Tolstoy's 1889 novella of the same name, and, in turn, this 2009 dramatic adaptation by Nancy Harris.
While the playing of music together by the man's wife (Alice Pinto) and his old school friend (Phillip Grenell) is enough to trigger the onlooker's dangerous jealousy, the choice of piece is no coincidence. With this radical, tempestuous composition of 1803, his violin sonata No 9, Beethoven overturned the tradition of genteel solos with piano accompaniment as violently as if he had slammed down the piano lid on the hands of the player.
With the so-called Kreutzer Sonata he wrote a piece of such frank intertwining and passion that its toxic effect on a suspicious husband is easy to understand. If the playing itself in this production is pretty unspectacular, that at least underlines that the wife is a gifted amateur and that the violinist may not be all he's cracked up to be, even though concert goers are on their way to hear him even now, as the train rumbles on to its destination and the livid details of the man's tale are splattered across the initially humdrum scene.
John Terry directs with a musician-like, forensic attention to detail and timing; Alexandra Stafford's suggestive lighting on Alex Berry's blank-canvas design paints in the backdrops to the essentially domestic drama.
But it is Hicks's tour de force as Pozdnyshev that rings in the ears long after the last cadence. From his proud head and penetrating gaze through his increasingly agitated limbs to his writhing fingers, his Pozdnyshev is a reptilian rope of tautened sinew, indignation, self-justification and contempt. The smallest gesture or expression – the arrangement on the carriage seat of his few possessions, the sneer reserved for music, which does not touch his chilly soul, the astonishment that his wife did not enjoy reading the chronicle of his reckless youth - makes the audience's role as this disturbing man's travelling accidental travelling companion a mesmerising but alarming experience.
Shrunken in his morning dress for reasons that are revealed, Hicks's Pozdnyshev is a character that theatre-lovers will talk about with gleeful aversion for years to come. Get a ticket, even if you have to be as ruthless as he is. And be careful who you talk to on the train.
|What||The Kreutzer Sonata review , Arcola Theatre|
|Where||Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street , London, E8 3DL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Liverpool Street (underground)|
06 Jul 16 – 23 Jul 16, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM