“She’s an astonishing woman,” the terminally idle and self-loathing schoolmaster Platonov (Aidan Gillen) says of young widow Anna Petrovna (Helen McCrory), one of the many women buzzing about Platonov like moths drawn to a lethal and devouring flame. Coming nearly three hours into Jonathan Kent’s Almeida Theater premiere of David Hare’s fresh take on Chekhov’s once-abandoned and unruly play, Platonov’s assessment is equally applicable to the staging’s leading lady, McCrory, who navigates such a full spectrum of emotion that “astonishing” doesn’t seem to do her justice. (The actress’s previous legit credits include the London preem of “How I Learned to Drive.”)
When McCrory isn’t walking off with the play, a decibel-heavy evening may leave you wanting to lower the volume, just as Paul Brown’s supremely capacious set can’t disguise the miscasting of the leading man, Gillen, who snappishly if not very sympathetically is handed centerstage. (The histrionics, to be fair, may have been a factor of timing, since a shaken company found itself performing mere hours after the terrorist attacks on the U.S.) But it’s not just because McCrory recently played Anna Karenina on TV that this British actress seems to the soulful Russian manner born: At once vamp and erotic victim, poet of sorts and indolent provocatrice, her land-owning Anna constitutes so limpidly beautiful a performance that amid a long but well-paced evening, she leaves you — rather amazingly — wanting more.
Kent’s audacious staging, at times, promises to be its McCrory’s match, as he juggles an assortment of reprobates, hangers-on and romantic wannabes that’s dizzying even by Chekhov’s standards: Weaving our focus in and out of conversations, sometimes several at once, Kent seems to be trying for a stage equivalent of the multiple perspectives achieved, say, on screen by Robert Altman. (Jonathan Dove’s shimmering original score is on hand to elide the scenes.) What’s more, Brown’s eye-opening set — lit with a quiet bravura by Mark Henderson — stretches the full width and depth of the Almeida’s substitute King’s Cross home, stretching from a grove of birch trees across a stagnant stream-turned-railway track and on to a scorched garden that gives way to a field of sunflowers slowly wilting in the summer heat.
The result allows ample room for Chekhov’s assemblage to lie in hammocks, picnic, plot revenge, and — in the case of at least four women — lust after Platonov, the young schoolmaster with a case of Hamlet envy that even Konstantin in “The Seagull” doesn’t possess to this degree. A miserable old soldier, Triletsky (Jeffry Wickham), huffs, while his doctor son (Adrian Scarborough) drinks too much and puffs; one Europhilic count (Nicholas Boulton) yearns for Paris, while Osip the horse thief (a wildly overripe Tam Dean Burn) plots Platonov’s demise.
It’s Platonov’s fate, instead, to inhabit a living death, lashing out at “a world made up only of the utterly third-rate,” among whom he counts himself. Platonov dares others to dislike him and then can’t believe it when the women flock, even if a punky Gillen’s charisma-free perf requires the character’s apparent erotic pull to be taken on faith.
Gillen starred as Stuart, the sexual magnet for other men, in the British miniseries “Queer as Folk,” and he here trades in a cruisy, modern-day, north-of-England swagger for the bitterness that comes with going self-consciously to seed in a century-old Russian provincial backwater. But without a compensatory allure, he’s not worth an audience’s attention, much less the ladies’: Gillen is an interesting actor in the wrong part. (Ian McKellen had just the right braggadocio playing the same role during the 1980s in Michael Frayn’s “Platonov” rewrite “Wild Honey,” which employed a train effect not dissimilar to the one that stuns the audience here.)
And so you’re left, after all, with a hole where “Platonov’s” heart should be, though even then one is swept along by the sustained bleakness of Hare’s take-no-prisoners adaptation — Chekhov so de-romanticized as to seem downright nihilistic — and by the quieter moments when the rant lets up and a rueful ache takes over. The best of those moments fall, in turn, to McCrory’s galvanic Anna, not least when she emerges out of the shadows to confront Platonov, asking, “God gave us the world for sleeping; why sleep now?” And well before the sound of a train bearing down on the audience bolts us into intermission, the restless questioning of a major actress leaves our senses fully sharpened and awake.