A Provincial Life – review

It is another coup, and a rather poignant one, for National Theatre Wales: bringing Peter Gill back to direct in his native city for the first time. He does so in a revival of his 1966 adaptation of a Chekhov short story about a bourgeois young man, Misail, who shuns rank and privilege in favour of an honest working life. The ramifications of this decision provide the play’s slow-burn tragedy. “You haven’t kept at your rules,” Misail is told late on in the play. “And you can’t be allowed.”


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “A Provincial Life – review” was written by Elisabeth Mahoney, for The Guardian on Thursday 8th March 2012 17.30 UTC

It is another coup, and a rather poignant one, for National Theatre Wales: bringing Peter Gill back to direct in his native city for the first time. He does so in a revival of his 1966 adaptation of a Chekhov short story about a bourgeois young man, Misail, who shuns rank and privilege in favour of an honest working life. The ramifications of this decision provide the play’s slow-burn tragedy. “You haven’t kept at your rules,” Misail is told late on in the play. “And you can’t be allowed.”

Much of the pleasure here is in seeing a director on absolutely commanding form, working with dazzling confidence. Against Alison Chitty’s blank-canvas design – vast floor-to-ceiling panels of bleached wood – scenes are full of exquisite detail, marking the class and status of the households. Furnishings are swept in during dynamic, extended scene changes featuring Terry Davies’s stirring music. These, and haunting moments such as a line of men scything crops or the tableau-vivant that ends the first act, are the pulse of the production, contrasting with static scenes at dinner tables with endless cups of tea from samovars.

It is around these samovars that Misail (Nicholas Shaw) tussles with idealistic non-conformity and the price paid for living with taut principles. Shaw needs to make us feel his struggle more directly early on, as it is otherwise expressed in wordy exchanges, although in the play’s closing moments he is considerably more affecting. There are some terrific performances in the large cast: Alex Clatworthy as Misail’s capricious wife, John-Paul Macleod as his peculiar colleague Ivan, and Clive Merrison as his intransigent father. The play feels topical, in its focus on youthful rebellion against privilege and corruption and a sense of a fast-changing Russia, but the question it poses is timeless. “What,” wonders Misail, “are we for?”

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