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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Chekhov revived in Afterplay
John Hurt
John Hurt is Andrey Prozorov from The Three Sisters

It is a fascinating, but hazardous, idea to attempt to revisit characters from Anton Chekhov's plays a couple of decades on in their lives.

Brian Friel's Afterplay engineers a late collision in a Moscow cafe between Andrey, the hen-pecked brother of the Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya's self-abnegating niece, Sonya.

How better to glimpse such fascinating café life than to step in off a street in Soho through the doors of a gilt, old-world theatre like the Gielgud and find such fine actors as John Hurt and Penelope Wilton at the table?

But as the play unfolds and Friel rounds out Chekhov, one cannot help but wish that the characters here had been as unfamiliar from the outset as real strangers at another table.

Penelope Wilton
Sonya displays a veneer of worldly wisdom
Not that this is any less a poignant and memorable work than other Friel plays such as Dancing At Lughnasa, the bitter sweetness of which it shares.

If the dialogue is, as Sonya puts it, about "living alone and how to manage it", it is full of humour and none more so than when they pin down Andrey's "little fables, tiny fictions and small untruths".

It is a rich pleasure to see the pair grow closer, teasing each other out over tea and vodka, only to stumble at the inner, emotional reef which emerges from Sonya's surface worldly wisdom.

Very strange meeting

One wonders if someone who had never seen Chekhov could appreciate Afterplay in its own right, so numerous are the references to the earlier plays.

For those who know them, it can be hard going - would Uncle Vanya have taken a gun to his rival had he been the "benign, bumbling creature" this Sonya recalls.

Would Andrey's grasping wife Natasha really have let go her all-important children?

But character aside, there is the difficulty of believing that the Bolsheviks would deal so leniently with a daughter of nobility and the son of a tsarist general.

Perhaps one could imagine a meeting between them as emigrés in Istanbul or Paris but the idea of Sonya being in Moscow to negotiate the management of her country estate with the "Agriculture Ministry" is surreal.

Yet blur the details and the references and you have before you an encounter between two lonely souls flickering into eager life again like strangers chatting in a theatre foyer, after the play is over.

Afterplay, which had its world premiere this year at the Gate Theatre Dublin, is showing at the Gielgud Theatre in London until 8 December.

See also:

20 Sep 02 | Entertainment
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08 Feb 02 | Entertainment
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