With its compelling portrait of a ‘superfluous man’, Mikhail Lermontov’s novel 1840 A Hero of Our Time depicts a listless, resting soldier who gets himself into all sorts of scrapes while attempting to relieve his overbearing sense of ennui.
Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban’s adaptation deploys an arsenal of physical theatre techniques to create blistering feat of storytelling that convincingly combines the novel’s 19th-century setting with a modern sensibility.
Here, Bennett’s brooding Pechorin resembles a debauched rock musician, slouched on a sofa, haunted by the pointlessness of his existence. Holed up in a Caucasus spa town, he idly competes with army pal Grushnitsky (James Marlowe) for the affections of the beautiful Princess Mary – Scarlett Saunders, who also plays Pechorin’s lost love Vera as a cigarette-smoking femme fatale.
Unreconstructed chauvinists, the soldiers engage in seduction as sport, their rivalry embodied by spirited chest-bumping, epaulette-waggling peacockery and unorthodox mazurkas.
Alexis Garcia’s inventive set design complements the knockabout narrative: the roving chesterfield becomes a whinnying horse, and Princess Mary’s Whitney Houston lip-sync is projected on to drawn curtains. When the action transfers to Kislovodsk (literally ‘sour water’) the men bite into a lemon, Pechorin spitting the juice on to a huge mirror upstage. Throughout, taps on a microphone mimic galloping heartbeats.
As infectious energy propels the action, the cast members end up shouting over each other. But the more boisterous episodes are tempered by sublime silliness, such as a clippety-clop trot of a troika. Yet beyond the japes and (literal) horsing around, Shcherban’s production gets to the novel’s cynical heart, entering the tormented mind of an intelligent man who feels he has no place in the world.