The Kreutzer Sonata | State Theatre Company of South AustraliaLeft & Cover – Renato Musolino. Photos – Shane Reid

Leo Tolstoy’s last novella is a powerful tragedy that unpacks the gradual fall of those who fall prey to debauchery, posing deep philosophical questions about the purpose of life. Unfortunately, excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures in an age of technologically-powered consumerism and preoccupation with body pampering seems to be resonating with contemporary society and so it is no surprise that Tolstoy’s text has been blossoming on the world stage lately.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia should be commended for taking on this major text in a new adaptation by award-winning Australian playwright Sue Smith, directed by Geordie Brookman. Despite the promise of a small and economical production, no expense was spared with the original casting of Barry Otto in the role of the narrator supported by an array of Australian artists, each excelling in their field. This one-man-show has a challenging dramaturgy and taxing emotional charge.

The first impression is arresting. Performed in the industrial but intimate Scenic Workshop, Geoff Cobham’s steel L-shaped platform with only a chair for the actor to rest, allows little space for movement as an outer expression of Pozdnyshev’s predicament. It is suspended over water which looks like an abyss or reflects the actor’s body. Grey and black dominate the palette resonating with the dark passions of the character. The wall behind him transforms into a black-and-white canvas of Thom Buchanan’s art animated by Chris Petridis. Timed perfectly and unobtrusive jail bars, a fleeting romantic landscape disappearing into enclosed spaces, the fall of a white figure and finally, the symbol of the train track which is so central to Russian literary and cinematic storytelling complement the industrial feel of the set.

Narrator Renato Musolino, who has taken the mammoth task to take over from indisposed Australian legend Barry Otto, delivers a powerful reading that brings to the stage a performative literary touch that points audiences towards the original text. Besides the different English translations of the novella, there is an afterward written by Tolstoy that would be an intriguing reading for someone who has seen the play and is reflecting on the dark nuances of human desperation. Musolino’s diction is impeccable, almost too pronounced, and his voice is strong and versatile in range, but he is forced to press on with the reading, leaving the viewer breathless and gasping for moments of repose.

Beethoven’s well-known Op. 9 appears later in the play during the catastrophe. Music curated by pianist Gabriella Smart accompanies the declamation ranging from old solo violin pieces played by Elizabeth Layton, through to piano pieces by F. Chopin, A. Schnittke, A. Curran, P. Glass, C. Vine, and industrial project Nine Inch Nails with sound design by Andrew Howard. The older pieces create the atmosphere of a nineteenth century salon, while the modern pieces achieve an unexpected depth of dramatic reference.

The final word ‘простите’ (forgive me) was met with loud applause, yelling and stomping of feet in the packed venue, signalling a successful audience reception of this ambitious project. The production is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Being a late work of the social reformist Tolstoy, the most satisfying element for me was that as a work of art, the play not only exposes the pitfalls of human existence but also proposes a solution that is encapsulated in this last utterance.

State Theatre Company of South Australia presents
The Kreutzer Sonata
by Leo Tolstoy | adapted by Sue Smith

Director Geordie Brookman

Venue: The State Theatre Company Scenic Workshop, Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: 22 Feb – 17 Mar, 2013
Tickets: $25 – $65
Bookings: 131 246 |

Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia

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