SONYA AND ANDREY: A BRIEF ENCOUNTER BY FRIEL
Two lonely middle-aged people meet in a cheap Moscow café in 1920: she frowning over accounts and mortgages, he in frayed evening clothes toting a walnut violin case. It is the second night they have coincided, strangers in town, and with awkward bourgeois politeness they share a table and resume their chat. He is a violinist at the Opera (“Do you always rehearse in evening dress?” “German conductor! Stickler for formality!”). She is puzzling over how to keep a distant estate afloat after the death of her male relatives, not that they were ever much use with an account-book. These are Chekhov characters twenty years on: Brian Friel, a fine translator of the master, revives them and imagines their futures. In fifty minutes he makes it an exquisite, touching miniature.
We last saw Sonya consoling Uncle Vanya with that marvellous affirmation of justice in an afterlife: “We shall hear the angels…we shall see how all earthly sufferings are drowned in mercy, and life will grow peaceful, tender…we shall rest”. As for Andrey, he is the brother in Three Sisters, last recorded as ineffective, mocked as a failure and cuckolded by his wife. But life goes on, and there is comfort to be found by confiding in strangers in an empty café. Even if, at first, you fib a lot.
Niamh Cusack is Sonya, Sean Gallagher Andrey: their interplay over cabbage soup and surreptitious nips of vodka from her handbag is drawn with delicate precision. Roisin McBrinn’s direction is unobtrusive, Friel’s truthful humorous sadness caught absolutely. Cusack gives Sonya a spirited , stubborn dignity and flashes of wit; Gallagher deploys a slightly clownish amiability. We learn how three weeks watching over the dying, demented Vanya with Dr Astrov at her side was the most “serene and fulfilled” moment of Sonya’s life, how the estate’s agriculture faded and the bank (lunatically) wants it forested over. Andrey speaks admiringly of his two surviving sisters, still at forty waiting for life to begin. He reveals Masha’s end and his own wife’s defection. He is a champion fibber, and only gradually admits his self-aggrandizing legends. Sonya, on the other hand, tells only one central lie but is herself trapped in a fictional narrative of her connection with Astrov, “A man of vision, close to saintliness and not always sober.” Both of these gentle disappointed people face an “endless tundra of aloneness”. Sonya embraces it in the name of virtuous fortitude, Andrey has a healthy if incompetent impetus to escape it, and behind his fictions eventually reveals a simple, loving nobility of life.
It is very beautiful, often painfully funny: a tiny jewel adorning the Crucible’s fine Friel season, definitely one to catch. Possibly before going out in the Sheffield drizzle to sit in a café hoping for a mournful new friendship. I’m off out.
box office 0114 249 6000 to 1 March