Written for CultureWars.org.uk
First seen at the Royal Court in 2000, written by Martin Crimp and directed by Katie Mitchell, regular readers might assume that the original production of The Country ranks among my all-time top five theatrical experiences ever. They would be mistaken. Perhaps it was my age, perhaps it was the play, perhaps the production, but on the strength of its premiere, I’d always regarded The Country as a weak moment in Crimp’s recent output. However, with the recent premiere of companion piece The City at the Court, this revival of The Country at The Tabard Theatre – itself virtually in the country – offers a timely opportunity for reassessment.
There is nothing worse than watching one production through the half remembered veil of the original. But here is feels imperative to do so. The basic facts of Crimp’s story remain the same. A middle aged, middle class doctor and his wife have moved out to the country with their children. The husband has found a young woman unconscious by the side of the road and has brought her back to their home. The wife is disturbed. Concerns and conflicts reveal themselves. Then the young woman wakes up and it all gets even stranger.
Where Katie Mitchell’s original, starring Juliet Stevenson and a young Indira Varma, played on a clean white modernist stage with a veritable forest of dead fir trees hung menacingly above the stage, here we are in a half-timbered black box offering no more than a couple of tables by way of set.
The original production had been so mannered as to suggest that the whole play was nothing more than an elaborate exercise in knocking up a Pinter pastiche from nothing more than repetition, lengthy pauses and silences. Here the dialogue flows more naturally. The take on the relationships portrayed is softer. While Crimp’s writing always evokes a kind of abrupt froideur, here it seems couched in terms of people who at least have a halfway plausible marriage.
Similarly, Rebecca, the interloper, is shifted from Indira Varma’s wired, druggy, frightening, desperate junkie to being a ballsy American history student who's maybe a bit nuts. Where Varma was unreliable, uncertain and clearly unstable, Jennifer Kidd seems mostly to have her head pretty well screwed on. There is a sequence in which Rebecca recounts a narrative to the husband – in the original it seemed quite possible that it had been made up, delivered half as speculative threat, here it becomes a definitive version of events. One finds oneself missing the original ambiguity at the same time as embracing the new sense of certainty.
What is most impressive in this new version is the power that it gives to the last scene. I had pretty much forgotten the surreal twist from the original. The version delivered here is likely to stay with me for some time to come.
Simon Godwin’s production, while not perfect, provides a welcome opportunity to see what turns out to be a finely wrought intriguing thriller from one of our country's foremost writers.