Stephen Brown, ‘The Future’s Here’, in Times Literary Supplement (4 Oct. 2002), p.21.

Brian Friel’s new play gives an an afterlife to two Chekhov characters from two separate plays, imagining that they meet by chance in a dilapidated Moscow café, some twenty years after the end of their previous fictional existence.

When we left Sonya Serebryakova, she and Uncle Vanya were surrounded by paperwork, resuming the management of the estate, and Sonya.was delivering a speech about the need for endurance and the promise of a rest in the hereafter. When Afterplay begins, the admin, for her at least, is not yet over: she (Penelope Wilton) is searching desperately through another pile of documents strewn across one of the café tables. A minute later, Andrey Prozorov (John Hurt), brother of Olga, Masha and Irina in Three Sisters , walks in across the half-torn-up parquet flooring. He is carrying a violin, perhaps the same violin that he plays in Act One of Three Sisters , and a meagre supper of soup and fresh brown bread. Just before he last left the stage, he was veering wildly between desperate pessimism about provincial life and a dream of the future - “there’s a glimmer of dawn, I see freedom. ...” Now, alas, the future, about which Chekhov’s characters talk and fantasize so much, is here.

Friel’s play, consisting of just this one meeting between Andrey and Sonya and lasting for a little over an hour, is a melancholy “what if” fantasy. Andrey and Sonya talk a great deal about the past, often rather obviously bringing the audience up to date with what has happened since the events of their respective plays. Sonya’s life, as she predicted, has been more of the same. Uncle Vanya has died of a stroke, brought on by overwork on the estate, which burden Sonya must now shoulder alone. She is still in love with the doctor Astrov, and his affections still lie elsewhere.

Andrey’s sister Masha killed herself after the departure of her beloved Vershinin; his wife Natasha left him for Protopopov, with whom she was having an affair during Chekhov’s play and for whom she was willing to abandon the children she so ostentatiously and gruesomely doted on. Knowing ironies abound. Sonya is here in Moscow to be told by the new dirigiste bureaucracy that she must plant her whole estate with trees - a perverse fulfilment of Astrov’s obsession with Russia’s forests. In perhaps his most original development, Friel has Andrey busking on the streets of Moscow to fund his visits to his son Bobik, who is in prison there. Afterplay is a case not so much of “How many children has Lady Macbeth?” as “How did they do at university and what are their career prospects now?” Friel is skilful enough to ensure that these revelations drift along quite amiably. There is little real drama in the present tense, but the tremulous and ultimately thwarted romance between Sonya and Andrey is nicely handled, if predictable. The lies that both characters, particularly Andrey, tell to deny the reality about their lives provide some welcome surprises. Robin Lefèvre gives the production a contemplative, autumnal pace, relying on Wilton and Hurt’s considerable charisma to carry us through the pauses. Hurt slightly over-uses his craggy-faced stare into the middle distance and seems too little of a fool, but is rich voice is as powerful as ever. Wilton convincingly suggests Sonya’s battered goodness and youthful head; she is restrained, brisk, yet almost girlish.

But Afterplay is an act of homage, and and therefore not quite a proper play. There is some fun to be had in wondering about the life of characters beyond the boundaries of a creative work, but it is mostly a base kind of curiosity, the crutch of second-rate novelists and play-safe Hollywood executives. Works of art have their edges for good reason. Theatre in particular preserves its characters in an eternal, repeating present - something that a play like Three Sisters is certainly aware of. Having Andrey tell us that his two surviving sisters have never made it to Moscow turns a fragile, suspended theatrical metaphor into something dully empirical. To have him go on to say that “they know in their hearts that the Moscow dream-life is just that - a dream” reduces him to the role of plodding critic. Many of Afterplay’s speculations seem merely to recycle Chekhov’s original situations or follow through rather obviously on his plot lines, with the added disadvantage that Chekhov showed the emotions that Andrey and Sonya for the most part talk about. Most surprisingly, perhaps, Friel has almost nothing to say about the central, compelling question raised by his dramatic situation: what happens to Chekhov’s characters, with all their chatter about history and progress, after the Russian Revolution?

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