Prior to its New York run in March, Nancy Harris’s erudite adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella returns to the Gate. Tolstoy had hoped to see it accompanied by Beethoven’s music, which courses through the story’s veins, in his lifetime, and it’s obvious why. The two collide and entwine powerfully in Natalie Abrahami’s elegant staging.
Hilton McRae plays Posdnyshev, a man eaten away by jealous suspicions that his wife is having an affair with her musical partner. When his mind races, the music is nimble and dainty. By the time he reaches his conclusions it surges into a feverish swell, raging and spitting fury. McRae doesn’t so much speak the words as dance them, tapping out syllables like expressive footfalls. His voice is a drum kit; it can rasp like a snare or clatter like cymbals or swish like a soft brushstroke. The moment he hits upon the crucial detail – ‘That was it,’ he says – his vocal chords seems to have become corroded by an upsurge of stomach acid.
Even after his acquittal for her death, on board a train home, Posdnyshev’s mind throbs with resentful misgivings. He imagines them tossing their instruments aside to gorge on one another; he sees her fingers scrabbling over the ivories like spiders and his bow thrusting away at the cat gut strings. The images appear, behind and projected onto a gauze in Chloe Lamford’s design, as if in the glow of scorching flashbulbs. It is searing as an unshakeable migraine and jealousy has left him quivering and swollen-faced.
And yet, for much of its build, The Kreutzer Sonata suffers from the pitfalls of the past tense. The dramatic vigour of events, when they are replayed as recollection, becomes viscous and swampy. ‘Nostalgia,’ Posdnyshev mutters, ‘it’s a poison’.
But this is a staging that achieves the tone of its original form, absorbing you in the way that delicately enthralling books manage. It makes a pinhole of your focus, zoning in on McRae’s pinched features, as his mouth sculpts the words into being. He exhales the words ‘my wide-eyed wife,’ snagging on a half-whistle. Around him, the piece teems with atmosphere. Accompanying images are fluid and ethereal, and the whole is as fragile and unctuous as a curl of smoke.
Such careful attention to tone is rare and McRae carries it off with aplomb: flickering with paranoia and sharp as lemon-zest, when keeping watch; humid and drowsy as he describes the murder; and finally, serene and remorseful with his wife – and, with her, his jealousy – has died. Exquisite.