The Kreutzer Sonata
nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
March 8, 2012
“Timing is everything in music,” announces the narrator-villain of the piece with a cavalier chill in his voice. While your soul revolts against nearly every word uttered by the equal parts horrific and hypnotic anti-hero of The Kreutzer Sonata, you can acknowledge that this, at least, is true. Timing is everything in theater as well and this play is a perfect arrangement of writing, production, and performance that begets a theatrical symphony worthy of the titular Beethoven violin sonata that inspired the unnerving tale.
In the flickering light of a train carriage, Pozdynyshev, a trim, middle-aged man impeccably dressed with diction to match, unravels his tale of barren passions and green-eyed vengeance to his unseen fellow passengers. “An evening of music to me is like an evening spent in a brothel,” he says. “You pay your money, you perspire—there is a vague feeling of release followed by a temporary feeling of elation and you return to life as it was, a bigger fraud than before. I am not a music lover.” Such is the narrator, a man so elegant in his phrasing of opinions so crude and base that you feel tainted just by hearing them—and yet, you can’t stop listening.
And such is the skill of Hilton McRae, here reprising his role as Pozdynyshev from the widely acclaimed Gate Theatre premiere of The Kreutzer Sonata. Nancy Harris adapted Leo Tolstoy’s sensational 1889 novella of the same name for the London stage in 2009, and now, in its American premiere at La MaMa, the psychological portrait is so rich and the unfolding of the drama so controlled, it is easy to believe the adaptation does justice to the great Russian master’s work. With deliberate leisure, Pozdynyshev lays bare his corroded marriage to his “wide-eyed wife,” for whom he feels a mixture of unbridled lust and unadulterated hate—as he feels for all women. These poisoned passions turn combustible when a young violinist enters their conjugal world bringing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with him. I can’t say more about the plot without spoiling an orchestration perfectly executed, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give due credit to the music itself and the other production elements.
Director Natalie Abrahami has faint strains of violin and piano playing plaintively in the background or thundering over the monologue in accordance with the emotional shifts of the play as the unnamed wife and violinist (played by Sophie Scott and Tobias Beer, respectively) come in and out of focus through the semi-transparent screen of Chloe Lamford’s impeccably realized and atmospheric set. Taken together, it all just works exceptionally well, invoking a complex play of emotions in the way all skilled compositions, from music to drama, do. The most unsettling strain in The Kreutzer Sonata is when Pozdynyshev speaks with such detestable but convincing lucidity about human relations that you almost begin to wonder, in the darker reaches of your own mind, whether he isn’t right. It’s a challenge—but then, all great art is.