(left) Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky (1823-86) / (right) From a New York production, 1997
Alexander Ostrovsky is every bit as significant
a figure in the development of Russian theatre as Anton Chekov. But, while his plays
have been performed consistently in their author's native land, they have never enjoyed the same degree of success
There have been memorable productions of his works in the UK in the
last few years (notably Cheek by Jowl's Family Affair and Richard Jones' Too
Clever By Half at the Old Vic) but opportunities to see his work in first class
productions remain rare.
Ostrovsky wrote more than 50 plays before his death in 1886. His
most frequent subjects were Russia's newly rich middle classes, whom he usually depicted
as both corrupt and predatory. As a consequence his early plays were frequently
banned. His work was championed by the Maly ensemble, to this day Russiaıs leading
actors' theatre. It is no coincidence that the only two characters not primarily
driven by self interest in The Forest are two traveling players down
on their luck. Actors were heroes to Ostrovsky and he remained devoted to them throughout
The play was written in 1870, nine years after the emancipation of the
serfs. The legal status of both landowner and peasant altered overnight, yet
ingrained prejudice and patterns of behaviour did not.
It is this difficult relationship between the ex serfs - some now grown
wealthy - and their former owners that lies at the heart of this savagely comic
play. Little had really changed and if the wealthy could no longer control their
workers, they still could manipulate the lives of both their servants and dependents.
The aging Raisa Pavlovna is selling part of her estate to Ivan
Vosmibratov, a former peasant turned wealthy wood merchant, ostensibly to provide a dowry
for a poor relative, Aksyusha. She has betrothed the girl to Aleksey Bulanov, a
young man possessed of good looks but very little else. In reality, Raisa is in love
with Aleksey and plans to keep him for herself. Aksyusha, meanwhile, has no
intention of marrying him as she is in love with Vosmibratov's son, Petya. Vosmibratov, in
his turn, will not consider marrying off his son without a large dowry.
Two provincial actors, Neschastlivtsev and Schastlivtsev, arrive at
Raisa's estate. Neschastlivtsev is Raisa's nephew and hopes to secure funds from the
wealthy woman. Knowing they will not be well received as their true selves, the
players disguise themselves as gentleman and servant. Initially, Raisa appears to
welcome her extrovert nephew but she soon tires of him, particularly when she begins to
see his position as her heir as an obstacle to her plans for Aleksey. When his true
identity is revealed she is relieved to be able to pay him off. Meanwhile she has
announced her engagement to Aleksey and decides to dispense with Aksyusha. Moved by
the girl's predicament, Neschastlivtsev gives her the money he has acquired so that she
can use it as her dowry and marry Petya. Only the penniless actor is able to rise above,
and in turn condemn, the greed and hypocrisy of a society in which money is king and those
without it are grimly dependent on the people who hold the purse strings.
Unfortunately, Anthony Page's production for the National Theatre is
somewhat lackluster. Its lack of energy does little for Alan Ayckbourn's feisty but
inelegant translation in which high born Russians talk of going to "grammar
school" and tell each other to "buzz off." The wealthy Raisa is a monstrous
and foolish woman but, as played Frances de la Tour, her feelings for the dim-witted but
devious Aleksey - and her subsequent scheming - seem merely pathetic.
Michael Feast's Neschastlivtsev is a tour de force of thespian
self-aggrandizement masking inherent decency. However, set against a group of
characters who seem mean minded and penny pinching rather than truly corrupt, his final
heroic gesture registers more as melodramatic attention seeking than the savage indictment
of hypocrisy that Ostrovsky intended. Michael Williams is delightful as his sidekick and
supplies most of the evening's rather short supply of laughs.
The vulgarity of Raisa's drawing room, in William Dudleyıs overbearing
metal set, does more to suggest the superficiality and emotional bankruptcy of most of the
characters than does Page's lackluster direction. Things may hot up as the play
settles in to its run but, for the moment, The Forest remains a rarely performed
masterpiece which should be seen but not necessarily in this less than masterful