Chekhov so dominates 19th-century Russian drama that Turgenev doesn’t get much of a look-in. His best known play, A Month in the Country, was written before Chekhov was born but Patrick Marber’s adaptation, with its new nickname, feels like Chekhov scripted by a Chekhov app. Turgenev’s characters, his atmosphere and his scenarios feel entirely familiar but they lack the tragicomic gestures that give Chekhov his unique appeal. There are no fluffed murders or dodged duelling challenges. No one tries and fails to blow his brains out. We’re on a rural estate where a group of crumbling, damaged sophisticates pootle around falling in love with each other. Every affair is doomed. The landowner’s friend covets the bored wife who craves the dashing tutor who’s keen on the penniless adopted daughter who herself is lusted after by the genial rich old neighbour. This non-stop spin cycle of thwarted romances could be the blueprint for a TV soap that never runs out of bubbles. It’s perfectly agreeable to sit through. Turgenev was a master of the polished aside. ‘How am I to survive,’ asks a cynical doctor, ‘if people simply get better?’ A dull guest is dismissed with, ‘Meeting him is the same as not meeting him.’ Life itself gets it in the neck: ‘Men rush about mistaking activity for purpose and then die mystified.’
But audiences raised on Chekhov will feel a little short-changed, even though the cast give it everything they’ve got. Buxom, drawling, gorgeous Amanda Drew plays the wife as a bit of posh tottie on Prozac. John Light, her cuckolded husband, comes across as a simmering human volcano with a voice that oozes chocolate rather than lava. John Simm, a superbly adequate performer, holds things together as Rakitin without startling anyone. Mark Thompson’s design may account for the show’s failure to achieve lift-off. He denudes the stage of furniture, leaves the wings wide open and pushes the rear wall back as far as it’ll go. This accentuates the Lyttelton’s greatest defect: its size. Even the tallest actors seem to shrink within the vast proportions of this big fat barn, and here the tiny cast look like ornamental dolls chiming the hours in a Bavarian town-hall clock.
The play’s only decent moment involves Mark Gatiss as a pernickety physician who woos an ageing maid played by Debra Gillett. Each cross-examines the other about their habits, psychology and expectations while taking careful note of the replies. It’s hilarious because their dialogue touches both polarities of romance at once: the wedding and the marriage, the immediate and the long-term, the intimate and the remote, the passionate and the calculated. And it’s the only scene Chekhov couldn’t have written better.
War-zone theatre is a different species from its peacetime cousin. It’s more sinewy, hasty, macabre and reckless, and it disdains censorship because it stares the greatest censor of them all, mortality, in the face. English drama’s best example, Blithe Spirit, written in 1941, treated death as an entertaining nuisance and its dark and debonair mood kept it running in the West End for most of the war. The MUJU Crew (composed of Muslims and Jews) approach today’s religious conflicts in the same manner. At first their sketches feel like undemanding parody. A Muslim wife keeps four husbands in purdah. ‘Their beauty is for my eyes only.’ A group of office workers, led by a black yuppie, complain about imaginary prejudice. ‘I was asked to do the photocopying, “in coloured!”’Snatches of political satire creep in. ‘Are you a good Jew? Keep kosher, flat in West Hampstead, holiday in Israel? Or are you the other kind who reads the Guardian?’ Then it gets a bit tastier. A teenage Jewess serves a stint with the Israeli army and seems convinced it’s a holiday. She chats on her mobile phone while waving a machinegun at a queue of Palestinians cooped up near a checkpoint. ‘They have to wait for three hours. Dunno why.’ Then there’s a beheading sketch. Two kneeling Isis victims await execution. One, an Iraqi Shia, complains that he’s about to be machinegunned secretly alongside dozens of other prisoners while his lucky comrade, a white westerner, will benefit from a celebrity jihadi killer and a personal video crew.
Is that sick? Well, yes but it also confronts the altered conditions we now face. In the age of pop-up warfare, the front line can reach any of us, anywhere, at any moment: in a shopping centre, a newspaper office, the beach. This squirm-inducing show is a necessary response to global terror and these excellent performers deserve a chance to write more of their distressing spoofs and get them on TV as a counterweight to the horrors our screens deliver every day.