Being obliged recently to check the dictionary definition of “several”, I discovered one meaning to be “two or three, but not many”. There are several reasons why Tom Gutteridge’s current QTC production of The Forest provides a rewarding evening’s entertainment.
Primary among the several was Bille Brown as Gennadily Dem’yanych. It is worth the night for him alone. He moves, amuses and amazes as he dances on the performance high-wire as an actors’ actor, playing an actor playing an indeterminate military personage with a heart as large and as warm as this gifted artist’s compelling presence and near flawless craft.
Other aspects of the production are sound and secure but on a lesser plane.
While the design and lighting allow the action to progress fluidly, the endeavour to bring to the play a touch of modern green relevance with a smattering of tree stumps and a brief appearance by a thankfully silent chain-saw was forced and irrelevant.
The forest of this play is not one of the ecological plunder of timber, but the enervating hypocrisy of petty people possessed by power, manipulation and greed. As Brown’s character (Neschast for short) questions shortly before his final departure, “How did we get into this forest, crawl into this undergrowth? See what we’ve done? We’ve disturbed the wildlife old chap. Frightened the birds of prey. Upset the natural order. Where old ladies marry schoolboys and young girls drown because life’s so unbearable. That’s the forest for you”
This may suggest a timelessness and universality in theme but Ostrovsky (1823-1886) wrote some 50 plays and is described by Britannica.com as a “Russian Dramatist who is generally considered the greatest representative of the Russian realistic period”. The Forest is called a comedy, but its humour is of its period, potently Russian and a prelude to Chekhov’s. Ayckbourn’s version does not consistently capture this essence.
It generates from the friction between classes. At the time of its writing the power of the landowners was declining and the social standing and economic power of the recently emancipated serfs was rising as seen in the bargaining for land between the forest’s matriarch, Raisa Pavlovna (Geraldine Turner) and the wood merchant Ivan Petrovich (Alex Menglet).
It echoes in the droll humour of the servants Karp (Bryan Nason) “It’s not a good thing to be very young, sir. There’s no advantage to be gained”, and Ulita ( Nicola Scott), who spies and reports on behalf of her mistress with the grim expertise of a Nineteenth Century prototype of a KGB agent.
It resonates in the conflicts in attitudes between those for whom love and friendship are genuine the young lovers Aksyuska (Raisa’s neice) and Pytor (the wood merchant’s son), and those for whom such are simply matters of convenience, accumulation and immediate gratification the 50-plus Raisa and her 20-year- old ward and ultimate fiance Bulanov (Trenton Shipley).
These are the “wild life” of the forest whose plans are disturbed, but ultimately unaltered, by the unexpected appearance of Raisa’s “provincial actor (tragic)” nephew Neschast after an absence of 15 years, together with and his “comic actor” companion Arkadiy (Iain Gardiner).
Accused of being “clowns” as they prepare to finally depart, Neschast retorts, “Clowns? We are artists ma’am, artists. You are the clowns. Us? If we love, then we love … But you? All your lives you talk about social welfare, about loving your fellow men. And what have you done? … Who have you ever given, comforted or consoled?”
The first paradox of actors is that in their creative blend of art and craft, they work extremely hard at appearing not to be working at all. The production works at its bitterly humorous best when it plays at the Ostrovsky end of the spectrum. This is the realm that Brown and Alex Menglet inhabit and exploit. In performance Menglet is the second of my several and Nason and Nicola Scott the third and fourth.
The production pressures us for laughs at the Ayckbourn end of the scale. In Ayckbourn’s style, Miss Turner’s studied posing and playing at, rather than in the character of Raisa, deprived her of the sadly humorous pathos of a woman endeavouring to deal with aging through a young lover, as a balance to Ostrovsky’s otherwise obvious lack of any sympathy for his greedy and grasping creation. Likewise at the Ayckbourn end, Iain Gardner often worked patently too hard at being comic, to be comic, and provide a balanced foil to Brown.
The younger players, while competent and clearly committed, would do well in the course of the season to analyse what it is in performances of the several, which in addition to experience, sets them apart. Perhaps current acting schools have forgotten that creativity and craft are sail and rudder of Thespe’s ship.