The Kreutzer Sonata @ Gate Theatre, London

cast list
Hilton McRae, Tobias Beer, Sophie Scott

directed by
Natalie Abrahami
Tolstoys famous 1889 novella has been skilfully adapted by Nancy Harris into a compelling dramatic monologue with a stand-out leading performance.

Here ex-local-government officer Pozdnyshev addresses the audience direct rather than buttonholing a silent travelling companion on a train in Ancient Mariner style.

At first he seems a polite, reasonable chap, albeit a rather cynical man of the world, who feels the need to talk to while away the journey. But after he mentions he has just come out of prison, he becomes progressively agitated as he narrates how he came to commit the terrible crime that led him there.
We hear about Pozdnyshevs bachelor days sowing wild oats, including visits to the brothel, before he proposes to a woman he meets on a romantic boat trip. But after their first row on honeymoon, their relationship deteriorates as he feels his wife does not return the strength of his sexual feelings, while they settle into routine married life with children. When an old violinist schoolfriend of his keeps on coming to their house to play Beethovens Kreutzer Sonata with his pianist wife he becomes obsessively convinced they are having an affair and takes drastic action.

Harris allows Tolstoys cautionary tale to unfold with quiet intensity. What comes through clearly is that it is Pozdnyshevs underlying misogyny that creates his compulsive jealousy leading to tragic consequences. Although we see events through his eyes, we realize fairly soon that he is an unreliable narrator whose reason has been so clouded by prolonged selfish behaviour that he cannot look outside himself. His aversion to music is not surprising for a man without harmony in his soul.

Natalie Abrahamis sensitive production builds to a thriller-like climax. Chloe Lamfords impressive set re-creates the narrow confines of a train compartment, with its low wooden-slatted ceiling and luggage nets above the seats, while Carolyn Downings locomotive sound suggests an inexorable destiny with the volume increasing in the dramatic finale. Dan Stafford-Clarks film and Ian William Galloways projection evoke Pozdnyshevs agonized memories, with a transparent screen sometimes allowing us to see voyeuristically his wife and friend behind embracing (in his heated imagination) and playing music.

Holding the stage virtually single-handed for almost an hour and a half, Hilton McRae gives a superb account of Pozdnyshevs increasingly irrational sexual jealousy as his love towards his wife turns to violent hatred. Although he precipitates the destruction himself, we also feel the pathos of a broken man for whom music will always act as a guilty reminder of his crime. Though only glimpsed sporadically, Sophie Scott and Tobias Beer (as his wife and friend) are heard much more in their splendid performance of the Kreutzer Sonata, which makes a passionate aural backdrop.

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