Gabriela Preissová's Jenufa, adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Perspective Theatre Company, Arcola Theatre London

  OCTOBER 2007  
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We enter the stifling village world of Jenufa before the performance begins, uncomfortably forcing our way through columns of heavy iron chains suspended from above which block the entrances and exits from either end of the long studio acting-space. All is black, save the slashes of blood red and pure white which criss-cross over columns and the two slightly-raised platforms in the central area. Occasionally these platforms are bridged, the actors hovering only inches above the ground. Occasionally, these same platforms burst forth with the meagre possessions of a generic 'Eastern-European' poor, as concealed hideaways store herbs and potions, mirrors and material, the wares of the sole-surviving matriarchal breadwinner, Kostelnicka. It is into her home we are invited. It is into her home that tragedy is also invited, when her step-daughter falls in love with the most eligible young man in town.

Unfortunately for this 'innocent' young girl, Jenufa, her deep infatuation with the young inheritor of the local mill, Steva, has led to her potential downfall. In a close-knit community where nothing is secret, where the tittle-tattle of gossips can literally destroy a family's happiness, and where the stigma of illegitimacy is the greatest threat to familial pride, Jenufa has done the unthinkable: she is pregnant with Steva's child.

Unfortunately, Steva is not the strong young man Jenufa's stepmother would like. Recognizing the moral weakness of her own dead husband in this young suitor, Kostelnicka manoeuvres to delay a possible love-match, unaware that the biological alarm call of imminent childbirth will soon be heard in the village. For now, Kostelnicka can only hope that her step-daughter's attentions are drawn to another young man, Steva's half-brother Latsa, a headstrong individual whose own passion for Jenufa outweighs his common sense and who, like all petulant and spurned suitors, acts in rage and anger towards the object of his love. Latsa inflicts an awful wound on Jenufa -- a wound the scars from which she is doomed never to recover. This single moment of passionate hate and despair affects the lives of all in this tiny community. As ever, it is the innocent who suffer; as ever, we experience the horror of rejection, of contempt and of eventual retribution.

This sets the scene for a play written by a Czech woman over a hundred years ago. Made famous by the composer Janacek by his opera which bears the same title as this adaptation (although, unbelievably, Janacek made fundamental changes to the outcome of the story which reflect more a morally patriarchal imperative than any need to 'adjust' the already forceful tragic narrative), Jenufa the play has been adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker with a subtlety and tenderness of touch which belies its creative achievement. This is not a stilted period play but a statement of raw emotion, the power of which will move any audience on a level so visceral, so primal, that we cannot but leave the Arcola feeling we have watched great cathartic drama of classical proportions. Admittedly, not the hubris of a great woman or man destined to for a fall, but hubris nonetheless for a simple hard-working villager, unable to bear children herself, bringing up the only true love of her life -- her step-daughter Jenufa.

The play works so well on so many levels, not least because of the flawless direction of Irina Brown. Brown, along with her designer Louis Price, has created a world and peopled it with characters who embrace the play and the Arcola space and lead us on this heart-wrenching journey. There is passion and real love in Brown's direction. There is also an empathy which spills over into the fine performances which underpin the play.

We are first introduced to Jenufa, played magnificently by Jodie McNee, as the young woman slowly, purposefully, enters the acting space bearing a glass bowl of water. McNee presents a girl whose every movement is ruled by an intense determination, as if she might be bearing the blood of Christ itself. Mesmerized by this slow, deliberate, intense moment, we soon realize that Jenufa is indeed praying as she walks -- praying not for salvation, but for the object of her love to be excused military duty. This opening moment of the play sets the character of Jenufa; McNee rises to the challenge of this artfully difficult role and succeeds completely.

Her suitors, Steva and Latsa, are likewise perfectly cast. Ben Mansfield plays the wastrel Steva, whose drunken exploits have led him to a delayed marital alliance and to the fathering of an unwanted child. From staggering drunken lout to pained and harrowed father, Mansfield never oversteps the mark, always presenting a character both believable and, in Steva's own mind, acceptable within the constraints of a staunchly-conservative village environment.

As for Latsa, Oscar Pearce allows us to join him on a journey. From petulant and spurned youth, whose violent outbursts are homicidal in their threatening intensity, to doting, honourable lover and partner, Pearce's Latsa complements the performance of McNee. Deep, intense and utterly real in its execution, Pearce's acting style is, occasionally, breathtaking.

If Pearce, McNee and Mansfield were not enough, add to this mix the Kostelnicka of Paola Dionisotti. Before we even enter the theatre, Dionisotti's hauntingly-beautiful face stares out at us from the posters and from the cover of the playscript that doubles as programme. An audience knows it is in for a good thing when Dionisotti's name appears in the cast-list; Dionisotti does not disappoint with her role as the village healer-cum-tinker, the 'wisewoman' whose herbal remedies can cure and whose healing hands can sooth. Dionisotti plays her part with utter commitment. She is rewarded with the utter commitment of her audience. Dignity in adversity is Kostelnicka's raison d'etre. Dionisotti realises this dignity as only a truly great actor can.

Nothing could have prepared me for this play other than the reputation of Wertenbaker and of Dionisotti. Nothing can be said about this play other than that it is the most powerful and moving drama presented by a skilled and committed cast of actors who evoke a stifling world of unrequited love and oppression. In a moment of high theatre as Pippa Lloyd and Darlene Johnson (Agnes and Burija) celebrate impending nuptials with an Eastern European folk anthem, we are treated to an aural feast of pure sound as their voices embrace and intertwine with the sensuality of newly-wed lovers. Passion, raw passion drives this play.

Kevin Quarmby © 2007 (For quotations from this review, see OffWestEnd.Com)