The Yalta Game
4 stars ****
WHAT IS the Yalta game? According to Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, the 40-year-old hero of Chekhov’s exquisite short story, it is the game of imagining the truth of other people’s lives, while watching them promenade through the squares and cafes of a Black Sea resort well known for its affairs and intrigues.
But in Brian Friel’s near-perfect 50-minute theatrical miniature – first seen in Dublin in 2001, and now in Edinburgh as part of the Dublin Gate Theatre’s magnificent tribute to Friel at 80 – the deeper undercurrents of Chekhov’s poignant and playful tale move to the surface, as Ireland’s finest living playwright mounts a brief but devastatingly powerful exploration of the nature of yearning itself.
In a cafe in Yalta, then, this smooth-talking Dmitry – a married man with many affairs behind him – meets Anna, a young married woman holidaying briefly away from her husband. She is, almost literally, the woman of his dreams; the two have a brief affair, and separate, but both continue to live more in the world of memory and imagination created by that brief encounter, than in the humdrum stuff of everyday reality.
So do they ever meet again? Did they ever really meet at all? Will they ever be together, in the clear light of day? By the end of the play, Friel leaves us knowing that we will never know. What’s clear, though, is that Patrick Mason’s scrupulously simple production, set on beautifully-lit stage furnished only with a cluster of plain wooden chairs, gives this story a huge, unforgettable theatrical weight and presence. Risteard Cooper is a superbly theatrical Gurov, absolutely in tune with the romantic-comedy lightness of touch with which Chekhov and Friel first draw us into their tale of love’s dreams and deceptions. And Rebecca O’Mara matches him as a perfect love-object of an Anna; strong, fragile, capricious, beautiful, and finally – like love itself – almost too sweet to be true.
Until 5 September
EIF p. 25