March 05, 2013

Star’s stand-in acquits himself well in murderer’s tale

March 4 , 2013
Adelaide Festival

The Kreutzer Sonata
Based on the Novella by Leo Tolstoy
Adaptation by Sue Smith
State Theatre Company.
The State Theatre Company Scenic Workshop,
Adelaide Festival Centre.
March 2. Tickets $ 25 – $ 65
Bookings : BASS 131 246 or
Until March 17.

The first night of a new play is always a high pressure event. The first night of a featured work in an arts festival, even more so. When it is the city’s leading theatre company on display amongst interstate and international productions, the stakes get even higher. So, when the eminent actor, Barry Otto withdrew from his solo role in State Theatre’s The Kreutzer Sonata, suffering acute exhaustion after only the second preview, it must have felt like incoming Artistic Director, Geordie Brookman’s worst nightmare.

Fortunately, the company has brought in replacement actor, Renato Musolino, for a script-in-hand reading which, after only four performances, has brought the production close to the theatrical experience first envisaged. Tolstoy’s strange, querulous novella, freshly adapted by Sue Smith, is after all, reported by an observer, so, unlike many monologues, here a storyteller with a text in hand is quite plausible.

The unnamed narrator describes a train journey during which passengers chat flippantly about the pitfalls of love and marriage. When an intense, agitated man overhears the discussion, he reveals himself as Vasily Pozdnyshev, an acquitted wife murderer, who like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner insists on unburdening his jealous, deranged confession.

Staged in the industrial setting of the scenic workshop, Brookman and designer Geoff Cobham have created an L-shaped metal grid with a single chair for use by the narrator as the story intensifies. Behind him, Thom Buchanan’s heavily etched black and white drawings of landscapes, railways and labyrinthine interiors are cleverly animated with time-lapse effects by video designer Chris Petridis.

The music, selected and performed by pianist Gabriella Smart (accompanied by Elizabeth Layton on violin) adds much to the emotional and dramatic effect of the production. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata features, of course. It is the trigger to the Pozdnyshev’s jealous attack on his musician wife and her lover the violinist, Troukachevsky. Other works by Chopin, Phillip Glass, Carl Vine and Nine Inch Nails also blend evocatively into the mix.

Musolino’s performance is expertly managed. He reads with complete precision, maintaining the cadence and resisting any urge to riff or improvise. He narrates the frenzied, cruel climax of the killer’s tale with especially compelling effect.

Tolstoy’s story is a disquieting, deeply misanthropic view not only of marital fidelity and love, but of human instinct itself. G.K. Chesterton observed drily that the Russian “is not content with pitying humanity for its pain. He also pities humanity for its pleasures.”

This enthralling production leaves us with the grim, unresolved paradox that a human creation as sublime as the Kreutzer Sonata could also unleash such ferocity in an ordinary man.

Murray Bramwell

Published in slightly abridged form as “Star’s stand-in acquits himself well in murderer’s tale.” The Australian, March 5, 2013, p.17.

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