A Provincial Life, National Theatre Wales | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
A Provincial Life, National Theatre Wales
Moments of visual beauty punctuate a Chekhov adaptation that struggles to find its focus
Since their launch just two years ago, National Theatre Wales has staged plays on a firing range, in a miner’s institute, and – most memorably – claimed the whole town of Port Talbot as their stage for Owen Sheer’s The Passion last Easter. Setting themselves the challenge of producing 12 productions in their first 12 months, this building-less company have somehow turned a modest (not to say meagre) £1 million a year subsidy into a living, risk-taking tradition of national theatre. Their latest play, Peter Gill’s Chekhov adaptation A Provincial Life, not only marks a rare visit for the company to a conventional theatre space, but sees iconic Welsh playwright Gill directing a play in his home town of Cardiff for the first time in a 50-year career.
While Gill has been London-based for the bulk of his working life, with stints at the Royal Court, National Theatre and Riverside Studios (where he was the founding director), his own writing has rarely taken its gaze from Wales, drawn repeatedly and particularly to the Cardiff landscape of his youth. While A Provincial Life (originally staged at the Royal Court in 1966) is an outwardly straight adaptation of a Chekhov short story, true to the spirit and setting of the original, his new production is striking for its Welshness – marrying Chekhov’s aesthetic sensibility to a poetic voice that is recognisably Gill’s own.
Tensions never quite cohere in this production, creating uneven performances among the large cast
In the Russian provinces of the 1890s we find Misail (Nicholas Shaw, pictured below), the son of a wealthy municipal architect (a builder of houses with “hard, stubborn expressions”), struggling with his conscience. Born to a life of respectable duty and privilege he yearns for a worker’s struggle, for an end to the hypocrisy of a bourgeois society that has “freed the peasants but enslaved the worker”. Together with his sister Cleopatra (Sara Lloyd-Gregory) and wife Maria (Alex Clatworthy) he attempts social and political rebellion and tries to find a way to live a life that marries principle and practice.
So far, so Chekhov, and neither composer Terry Davies’ folk-inflected score nor designer Alison Chitty's meticulous visual naturalism (replete with samovars and stoves) do anything to challenge this. But framing Chitty’s authentic foreground scenes are a series of shifting wall panels that alternately open up and embrace the action, staging it with calculated self-consciousness. It’s an approach echoed in Gill’s decidedly stylised direction, that demands formal gestures and blocking from his cast even while his text fills their mouths with easy vernacular cadence – often delivered here in Welsh accents.
These tensions never quite cohere in a production whose acting feels more “in translation” than its dialogue, creating some decidedly uneven performances among the large cast. In a brilliantly generous visual gesture Gill enlists an ensemble of semi-professional actors to supplement his central cast. Dressed as peasants, or the “Gogol-esque” townsfolk of Misail’s provincial home, these figures provide beautiful, fluid transitions, their silent presence rebuking a text that never gives them voice. A silent cameo from an old man in a billiard hall offers a rare moment of emotive directness.
Share this article
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
A new approach to immersive theatre aims to deliver more interactive thrills at Aynhoe Park
Imelda Staunton stars in American import about class which is both funny and moving
Emil and the Mormons: a bit of everything in theartsdesk's tips
Our mobile phone culture is put to the test of participatory theatre
The actor turned Sheffield artistic director who has taken The Full Monty to the West End
Peter Gill’s new play about the end of the First World War is a long, hard slog
Period silliness proves fun - up to a point
New musical about the woman who created the London map is full of promise
Comedy that bares its soul, among other things
How do you solve a problem like Orlando? Virginia Woolf's love letter cheerfully adapted
Stage version lacks the emotional punch of Mark Herman's film
'August: Osage County' writer returns with story of life in a besieged Chicago eatery