One of the great frustrations about Anton Chekhov is that he went and died after giving us just a handful of masterpieces, limiting the choices when it comes to staging his work. In a delightfully audacious way round this, Hampstead Theatre is mounting a “new” Chekhov drama: a play composed from two of his short stories. William Boyd has woven the longer story My Life into a shorter piece A Visit to Friends to introduce the dynamic of the former into the character study of the latter and create a remarkably convincing Chekhovian stage world. Longing certainly isn’t likely to replace Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard – it lacks the depth, scope and energy of those plays and feels rather like Diet Chekhov. But it is a rewarding experiment, delicately and wittily done by Boyd, sympathetically staged by Nina Raine, and led by superb performances from Tamsin Greig and Iain Glen.
Lizzie Clachan’s lovingly detailed set, a dilapidated but charming summer house, places us straight in recognisable Chekhov territory. And the characters all feel like relatives of people we’ve met before. Here is landed gentry on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to mismanagement by a capricious, drink-sodden landowner. Here is a pretty young girl, an idealistic youth, a bullish businessman, ready to snap up the auctioned estate, and a vulgar, nouveau-riche young wife. Here is a worldly doctor – this time a woman. Here is unvoiced heartache, yearning and that deep-rooted malaise we associate with Chekhov, spiked with dry comedy and humane observation. The summer house, like the cherry orchard, becomes symbolic.
Into all this strolls Kolia, a visitor from the city, former local boy become Moscow lawyer. He arrives for a relaxing break, but is soon grappling with the economic turmoil of his old friend Sergei (Alan Cox) and trying to wriggle free of Sergei’s young daughter Natasha. Will the estate be saved? Will commitment-phobic Kolia marry either Natasha (Eve Ponsonby) or Varia, the brilliantly sardonic doctor, whom he really loves? If you have seen any Chekhov, you will guess the answer. And the piece does feel rather predictable, while lacking the momentum of Chekhov’s dramas.
But the performances are beautifully modulated. John Sessions bustles bullishly as the acquisitive businessman and Glen is very funny and exasperating as Kolia. Greig, meanwhile, is simply devastating as Varia: wry, wise and deeply sad as she faces up to her lonely lot in life.