“In music, timing is everything.”
So pronounces Pozdnyshev, the protagonist in Kreutzer Sonata, Nancy Harris’ tight play adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novella of the same name. In theatre, timing is also everything, and in the Arcola Theatre’s riveting production directed by John Terry, the timing was perfect to a tee. Over the course of a through-performed 95 minute show that never rushed nor lagged, the audience was drawn into a series of past events that Pozdnyshev related directly in monologue, carefully unfolding his past like an intricate paper card whose delicate pages contained a horrible message.
Tolstoy’s novella, published in 1889 and subject to bans and censorship, examines themes of simultaneous lust and revulsion, purity and jealousy, and sex as an unequivocally corrupting act. Tolstoy took his novella’s title from Beethoven’s violin sonata, first performed in 1803 and famous for its technical difficulty and exhaustive emotional intensity. The novella’s story is told as a third person narrative by Pozdnyshev, a husband who is travelling home via train after being released from prison for a heinous marital crime.
There have been various dramatic adaptations of the novella, but Nancy Harris’ brilliant 2009 one-man monologue effectively maintains the novella’s narrative style, combining Pozdnyshev’s subjective commentary with flashbacks of constantly evolving events. This balance, difficult to capture in monologues that too often become heavy with observation and lack drive, kept dramatic tension high on the stage while giving the audience the thoughtful insight into the mindset of Pozdnyshev like that which a reader would get through pages of narration.
If Harris’ one-man stage adaptation is a first-class vehicle, its ultimate success depends upon the driver. As Pozdnyshev, Greg Hicks was in racecar form, captivating the audience from his opening lines and holding them in his hands throughout the entire play. Hicks played with the audience as agilely as he played with the yo-yo he pulled out of his pocket early on. Up and down, he took the audience on no mere train journey but rather across the stormy seas of one man’s sexual emotions. Hicks’ physicality was particularly effective. Though at first his incessantly twitching fingers and compulsive hand-to-nose gestures seemed affected, Pozdnyshev’s tale illuminated his mannerisms’ deep-rooted cause in his uneasy soul and tortured conscience. Hicks’ emotional stamina was also impressive. He was emotionally plugged-in from beginning to end of the show and moved seamlessly between side-by-side moments of anger, tenderness, longing, and violence. If he was fatigued by a run of such an emotionally-consuming work, he gave no indication in this final performance.
Music is a primary motor of Kreutzer Sonata’s development, and it is Pozdnyshev’s wife’s re-immersion into music in combination with the arrival of a violinist at the family’s house that kicks off Pozdnyshev’s jealousy and unleashes uncontrollable emotions. The onstage presence of a pianist and violinist added an appropriate and enriching sonic dimension to the story. The scattered snippets of deconstructed music emotionally colored the flashbacks without detracting from the plot while the climactic performance of part of the actual Kreutzer Sonata swept up the audience in the uncontrollable emotional rush Pozdychev experienced when the performance originally took place in his past. As the musicians played, Hicks delivered his lines in perfect synchronization with each musical phrase and mood, another feat of impeccable timing that intensified both the music and the spoken words’ emotional impact in a complimentary fashion.
The production’s other technical elements contributed to the effectiveness of the whole work. The use of varied lighting—harsh white when Pozdnyshev expressed his conflicted mind, soft yellow in his more tender flashbacks—helped delineate time and illustrate mood. The hanging electrical lights suggested both the elegant chandelier of his home and the spartan cell that he had just left. The Arcola studio was the ideal place for the performance, its wrap-around seating and balcony reminiscent of a courthouse where the audience is the jury.
Overall, Arcola’s production of Kreutzer Sonata forces the audience to contemplate uncomfortable ideas. Much like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert entrances Lolita’s reader through beauty of language, Harris’ eloquently-written Pozdnyshev and Hicks’ human portrayal give rise to questions of cognitive dissonance: can we sympathize with Pozdnyshev or are we solely disgusted by him? Is it possible to understand his descent into murderous jealousy while still condemning his crime? And like Peter Schaffer’s musically-inspired Amadeus, the audience plays its own role in the play. However, instead of being absolved by the protagonist at the play’s end, Kreutzer Sonata’s audience is appealed to by the protagonist to for the granting of absolution, a decision thrust upon them with Pozdnyshev’s final two words, “forgive me”. Just like a melody that continues to sing in one’s ears mind after a performance, Kreutzer Sonata and its examination of sex, music and human behavior remain with the viewer long after the show ends.