Dorothy Parker once cruelly desribed a stage performance of Katharine Hepburn’s as “running the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
There are not enough letters in the alphabet though, to describe the emotions explored by Helen Mirren in Bill Bryden’s impressively cast revival of Turgenev’s masterpiece “A Month in the Country”. As the quixotic Natalya, a beautiful middle-aged woman hopelessly in love with her son’s 20-year-old tutor (an appropriately bashful Joseph Fiennes), Mirren dazzlingly alternates jealousy, joy, rage and treachery with passion, wilfulness and despair. The play is an emotional minefield whose dangers she negotiates on a full tank of charm. Natalya is indifferent to her dull but well-intentioned husband (Gawn Grainger), attempts to talk her giggly adolescent niece Vera (Anna Livia Ryan, excellent) into a loveless marriage with a landowner (Trevor Ray), and is insensitive to the heartfelt attentions of the sardonic Rakitin (John Hurt) whose final leave-taking she acknowledges with a dismissive fluttering of her fingers.
Yet, as played by Mirren, you cannot help feeling genuine sympathy for an attractive, mercurial woman living a boring, isolated and oppressive existence in the country. All very Chekhovian – especially in the play’s depiction of unhappy lives seething under an outwardly calm surface. And, of course, as in Chekhov – whom Turgenev pre-dates by almost half a century – there is the humour to leaven the sadness.
Indeed, I have never seen a production of this remarkable play which draws more laughter, is more sensitive to its many psychological nuances, and is more convincingly performed. “Another man’s soul is a dark forest,” says John Hurt’s dignified Rakitin, a cue taken up by Hayden Griffin, whose timbered sets are dominated by a striking backdrop of impenetrable birch trees. A rare gem for the West End.