Family Affair, Arcola Theatre, London

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As with his production at this address over Christmas 2004 of Molière’s Tartuffe, director Serdar Bilis shows a strong overall concept of staging but makes some bizarre decisions which hobble the evening. This time, a satire by Alexander Ostrovsky, the father of realism in Russian drama (anticipating Stanislavsky and others by decades), is played as if populated by caricatures. Whether the periodic tableaux of Hogarthian grotesque, complete with unsubtle lighting changes, are Bilis’s idea or a relic of the Cheek By Jowl production in 1988 for which Nick Dear’s translation was originally made I do not know, but they are wildly out of keeping with Dear’s fizzing, colloquial text.

Mind you, so are many of the performances. Only Jonathan Coyne gets right on the money (pardon the pun) as the merchant Bolshov, who arranges to evade his business debts by signing over all his assets, including his house, to his assistant Lazar. Coyne is bluff and vulgar without being squalid.
Jane Bertish gets close, too, in her picture of shabby gentility as the matchmaker Bolshov has engaged for his airheaded, wannabe-fashionable daughter. Unfortunately, as the latter, Sally Leonard gives a leaden, lumpen reading which leaves one mystified as to how she may have captivated Lazar, who finally wins her over with the promise of putting what had formerly been her father’s fortune entirely at her modish disposal.

Perhaps most problematic of all is Philip Arditti’s Lazar, who refuses to honour his promises to Bolshov and others, instead hanging on to the money and leaving his father-in-law and former boss to rot in debtors’ prison. I think (but am not certain) that the Italian-born Arditti has been directed to exaggerate and transmute his own vestigial accent, and I fear that the purpose may be to characterise Lazar’s initial sycophancy and later grasping treachery as traits of Jewishness. I fervently hope that I am imagining this. After all, there is no need to retain all the mores of 19th-century Russia for a farce about money and legality, certainly not as this revival opened in a week when Tony Blair’s suppression of the al-Yamamah fraud investigation appeared to indicate that the rule of law can still take second place to commerce.
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