A Hero of Our Time

Sun 14th – Mon 29th August 2011

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Lise McNally

at 11:32 on 20th Aug 2011

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Alex McSweeney’s adaption of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is a gorgeously staged visual and audible delight. However, with an audience barely outnumbering the cast, there were simply not enough people to see it.

Set against the stark black and white of a Russian forest, the show opened to a tightly choreographed entrance scene which set the standard for a seamlessly crafted production. Crescendos of choral music, minimal props and well manoeuvred blocking created a wonderfully threatening atmosphere of frantic pointlessness, a sense of emptiness at the heart of life culminating in the truly tense duel scene. Indeed, this climax is so well executed that it is more than worth waiting for, even through the slower scenes of the play.

The script is natural, moving and occasionally rather funny. Unfortunately, some of the performers were unable to fill the shoes crafted for them. The resultant effect was something of small fishes in a rather beautiful and well designed pond. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a play which compared them twice to horses, the women in the cast were the most disappointing. While adorably sweet and believable in the first flushes of love, Sophie Cook's Princess Mary was unable to portray a convincing emotional breakdown with the same energy. Likewise, Margaret Garofalo (Princess Ligovskoy) committed more to some scenes than others, delivering a beautiful plea to her daughter’s wayward lover with a quiet skill I would liked to have seen elsewhere in her performance.

While the true star performer of this production is the use of sound and space, praise is also due to Peter Wicks’ masterful portrayal of Pechorin. Even from the opening slow motion charade, his remarkable facial control and captivating stage presence mark him out as a man to watch. Maintaining a complex and somehow engaging nihilism throughout, Wicks’ nuanced performance was truly brilliant. His emotional climax was perfectly pitched, as a cruelly maintained control finally gave way to tears. The moment when those racking sobs turned to manic laughter was both terrifying and utterly engrossing.

Although the mixture of accents was somewhat incongruous for a company of Russian officers, some members of the supporting cast also did justice to the visual display. Jay Paul Skelton (Maxim Maxymich) and Dr Werner (PJ Muirhead) were excellent, controlling their long speeches with confidence and flair. James Price needs to slow his speech a little during his portrayal of the plumy Grushnitsky, but the performance was spirited and highly entertaining. His vocal delivery was particularly vibrant, blustering and bumbling with all the dandyisms of a harmless fop. The effort and energy was a notable presence on the stage, making the impact all the greater when poor old Grushnitsky finally fell silent.

There are some pacing issues throughout the production, and moments when conversations and scenes drag. Consequently it is perhaps not for everyone, as long scenes of subtle psychology rather embody the proverbial “all talk no action”. Nonetheless it is a dense and clever production, which certainly deserves to be seen.

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Rowan Evans

at 11:39 on 20th Aug 2011

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This play deserves a packed house. I spend the pre-show minutes wondering why Zoo at Pleasance is so empty, and the catch-breath silence post-applause astonished that the audience has been so scant. The whole appearance of the thing has the brilliant clarity of starched snow-light. As with the best of Chekov or Ibsen, drama cracks against the veneer of a 19th Century social etiquette that stifles, ice-like, real communication. Rivals’ outrage chokes on convention - ‘you’re dancing the Mazurka with her, aren’t you?!’ - rupturing in a duel in Pyatigorsk wood (where, I learn, Lermontov himself fell to a single shot).

The set is simply arranged, and at first I’m unconvinced by the apparently random lack of simple props (a card, a coin, a bell) which are mimed, while in the next scene a hairbrush and mirror are actually held. But the frequent punctuation of slow-mo sequence in perfect synchrony starts to grow on me, accompanied by swelling, tinnitus mandolin as two lovers first lock eyes in a glade. It’s the sense of a dream aquarium of varied pace, the way the significance of one private moment in time can warp and expand among the slow grey revolutions of others in space: ‘time enough, the clock is ticking’. A backdrop of silver birch hangs throughout: stifled love in a Caucus snow dome.

Not only the set and production are captivating. Peter Wicks as Pechorin is measured, subtle, stunning, along side the wet fop Grushnitsky (James Price), obsessed and defined by uniform. I’m quietly stunned as the fate of Mary (Sophie Cook) pivots on Pechorin’s hysterical weeping - despair, surely ...or laughter ... no? Alex MacSweeney has done a fantastic job adapting a book whose spine I recognise from shelves dominated with larger classics. An author who, in his outlook, anticipates the absurdism of the following century, Lermontov now has to be read, as ‘A Hero of Our Time’ succeeds in dramatically exposing from concealment what must thaw. ‘FINITA, LA COMMEDIA’.

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