Alexander Ostrovsky's 1878 play Without A Dowry receives a very belated – but extremely welcome – British premiere in Samuel Adamson's Larisa and the Merchants at Arcola Studio 2. It can surely only be historical accident that's kept Ostrovsky's play off of British stages for so long, for Adamson's new version, directed with confidence and considerable style by Jacqui Honness-Martin, makes a thoroughly convincing case for the piece as an acerbic yet humane exploration of gender, class and economics in late-nineteenth century Russia, one that Honness-Martin's production – which will play alongside Helena Kaut-Howson's new version of Platonov in Studio 1 – invests with the bite, drive and poignancy of a folktale.
A connecting thread between the diverse authors whose work Adamson has been inspired to adapt over the years (Schnitzler, Ibsen, Almodóvar, Chekhov, Capote) has been a focus on complex, wilful heroines, and Larisa and the Merchants continues the trend. The action unfolds in a trading town on the Volga River, one inhabited by wealthy merchants and gypsy families. Larisa is a poor girl whose mother, Mrs. Ogudalova, is keen to make her a prosperous match. Our heroine has drawn the attention of the merchants, who view her as just another commodity of sorts, but she's about to marry one Yulii Karandyshev, a pretentious man who's dismissed by the merchants as "a flea-bitten government official from the sticks". It transpires that Larisa has made this match mostly as a practical way of getting over her true love, the aristocrat Sergei Paratov, who cruelly abandoned her years before. But Larisa hasn't counted on Paratov's return, or his reaction to the news that she's to marry.
The quandary that results for Larisa – a life of provincial dullness versus the danger and excitement represented by a former paramour – might remind you somewhat of Ellida's dilemma in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea. But Ostrovsky's interests are rather different, and so is the direction in which the drama develops. Focusing on the way in which money matters in interpersonal relationships, the play is deeply concerned with this society's tendency towards commodification, and Adamson incisively shapes the scenes as a series of deal-making, bargain-striking, bartering episodes.
The play's very particular social context takes some working out, and the dialogue initially seems a tad exposition-heavy. But Honness-Martin's production, presented in traverse, boasts an expressionist dash that mitigates this tendency. Music – in the form of gypsy-folk song and dance – is central to the evening and proves a distinctive, exhilarating addition. In a wonderful opening, Jennifer Kidd's glowing Larisa arrives on stage as though pursued by a posse of stomping, singing figures: it's an image that will resonate throughout the evening, as our heroine finds herself at the mercy of characters who – often very ruthlessly – seek to control her fate. Later, in a piercingly beautiful interlude, Larisa sings a folk lament that expresses her disillusionment about the corruption of love.
Kidd's radiant, candid performance – which shows how Larisa's distaste for her mother's machinations has turned her into a compulsive truth-teller, but one still destructively subject to the gusts of passion – is the centrepiece of this production. But Adamson's very witty, robust writing allows all of the cast plentiful opportunities to develop memorable characters. Ben Addis, bespectacled and sporting ill-fitting trousers, is aces as Yulii, a seemingly genial figure who gradually reveals his preening, possessive tendencies. Annabel Leventon plays the on-the-make mother with a delicious dash of Mike Leigh-esque caricature; she's especially wonderful when informing Larisa that "one advantage of living in the middle of nowhere is that even your husband will seem interesting".
Sam Phillips makes a striking impression as Paratov: hypocritical and ruthless, yet the kind of polished seducer that every audience member might just feel tempted to run away with. Morgan Philpott is marvellous as the play's most original character: a soak of an actor picked up by Paratov on a desert island (!). And Tarek Merchant as an effusive coffee-shop owner, and Dale Rapley and Jack Wilkinson as the merchants, also provide vivid textures.
A loosely contemporary sensibility is evident throughout, in Signe Beckmann's design and in Adamson's dialogue. This sometimes results in anachronism, but also allows the proceedings to skirt period fustiness. Brisk but not hurried, Honness-Martin's beautiful production is attuned to the play's quick movements in mood, as the tone shifts from social satire to melodrama before taking a final tragic turn, adding up to a richly entertaining evening. It's good to hear that Told By An Idiot is staging Too Clever By Half, in an adaptation by Rodney Ackland, this summer at Manchester's Royal Exchange. Perhaps Ostrovsky's moment, on UK stages at least, has finally come.