This short and sweet work by Brian Friel is set in a Moscow café. It’s an excellent fit for the Bewley’s Café Theatre lunchtime slot; play happily meets time and space.
There are two Brian Friels: one is a social analyst, engaging with history, politics, sociology. And there is a second Friel, whose main concern is the interior workings of the human heart; that is the writer at work in Afterplay. Sonya, a lonely vodka-tippling provincial landowner, is visiting Moscow to see bankers and advisers on how to manage her debt-ridden estate. Andrey is a failed musician, also visiting Moscow from the provinces. They meet by accident at a café and make a connection, and meet again the following day.
Sonya is the niece of Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s play of that name. Andrey is the brother of the Three Sisters in that other major Chekhov work. Both characters are low-key, their fates in the original plays unhappy. This encounter takes place 20 years after Chekhov finished with them. Sonya is in her 40s, Andrey in his 50s. Both middle-aged, both disappointed in life and in love.
Director David Horan stages the play neatly in its café setting, with a wrought-iron window set design by Jack Scullion. Barry Barnes is a gentle Andrey, with just a hint of chancer about him; he gives the character’s essential weakness a delicate grace. Karen Ardiff feels too passionate as Sonya and doesn’t find the drama in passivity that is there for the taking.
Friel’s bristling emotional intelligence is on fine display. The gentle accommodation to failure that is at the heart of these middle-aged lives feels sad and true. Both characters fabricate lies to seem better than they are; they conceal their failures in grand and futile gestures of self-protection. The drama is built on how these fabrications are, bit by bit, revealed to the audience.
The play works perfectly well if you don’t know the two original Chekhov plays. But there is an added poignant kick to the idea that Friel has taken these two lost souls and tried to rescue them from their lonely Chekhovian fates; it is an act of dramatic kindness written 100 years later. Sonya seems determined to resist rescuing; but that doesn’t stop Friel, and Andrey, from trying.