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 outside.
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 Russia�s 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 his life.
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 Dudley�s 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 production.