OLIVER Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban’s adaptation of A Hero Of Our Time is a brave and refreshing one.
Running until the middle of December at the Arcola Theatre, this play – based on a slither of Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novel of the same name – contains enough raw energy to keep a village lit for a month. Most of its electricity comes from Bennett’s portrayal of Pechorin, the play’s focus. He is perpetual motion. Just watching him perform makes you break out in a sweat.
Pechorin is a bored and somewhat unpleasant Russian officer – mischievous and untrustworthy, especially around women. Without a battle to occupy him, he has lost his purpose in life.
His comrade and junior in arms, Grushnitsky (James Marlowe), is less versed in the ways of women and easily smitten – not helped by a war injury which has left him using a crutch.
Into their lives steps Princess Mary (Scarlett Saunders) whom Grushnitsky falls in love with almost instantaneously. One look at her wearing head-phones and he goes weak at the knees.
Although Pechorin has involvements of his own – the married Vera, also played by Saunders – it does not stop him from causing mischief by flirting outrageously with Princess Mary. He successfully drives a wedge between the couple, much to Grushnitsky’s annoyance. It ultimately leads to a dual at dawn where pistols are drawn and a young life lost. All honourable but horribly futile and wasteful.
The play, directed by Shcherban, has many innovative components. Improvisation is a constant with a microphone and chesterfield sofa employed to great effect.
At various stages, they are used to depict the sound of galloping horses or Pechorin riding furiously from one crisis to another. The sofa is also a cliff edge and a fallen horse. Video is used to show Princess Mary lip-synching Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You and at one stage Pechorin smoking.
It is all rather frenetic, in places a little bonkers and horribly misogynistic, but strangely rather enjoyable. The sensational Bennett is the play’s heartbeat, both narrator and its main character. But Marlowe and Saunders are not over-shadowed. Marlowe’s Grushnitsky is all legs and social awkwardness although he mans up when Pechorin starts interfering.
Saunders’ Princess Mary and Vera are both needy. The princess somewhat vulnerable. Vera, dangerous and rarely seen without shades and a cigarette smouldering in her hand like a hand grenade.
There is Russian dancing – Grushnitsky and Pechorin participating in a vigorous Mazurka – and masquerade balls. There is also a lot of shouting (between the two men), comparisons of the length of epaulettes (boys will be boys), biting into bitter lemons and spitting the contents onto a big mirror that dominates the stage.
The doctor, a confidante of Pechorin, is depicted by Bennett holding a copy of Lermontov’s novel to his face. Rather clever.
A smorgasbord of delights, all of which combine to make for a fun 80 minutes of theatre. Barmy? Yes. But A Hero Of Our Time is eminently watchable.