Brian Friel, Ireland’s “greatest living playwright” is being celebrated during the 2009 Sydney Festival through a presentation of three works: Faith Healer, Afterplay and The Yalta Game. In association with the Gate Theatre of Dublin (who previously presented the Beckett Festival 2007), this production is a rare opportunity to view contemporary Irish theatre by and with Irish theatre practitioners at the helm.

The Yalta Game is inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The Lady with the Lapdog” in which an accountant, Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov (Risteard Cooper), charms and seduces Anna Sergeyevna (Rebecca O’Mara) a young wife, whilst on holiday in Yalta. Their affair is brief yet intense until a telegram from Sergeyevna’s husband indicates they must cease their affair and part forever. The story is simple and elegant: and poses the well trodden dilemma of whether of not to yield to the temptation of infidelity and so bear the consequences (whether they are the standard moral lessons or more surprisingly, an experience of love).

Delivered through a series of intersecting monologues the story of The Yalta Game unravels in the uneasy space between truth and fantasy. According to Gurov in his opening monologue, The Yalta Game is played in “a dream like state and sometimes with voracity”. It is a simple game in which Gurov watches people in the street, and invents fictions about their lives (or is it?). It is a game which plays with perception/imagination over truth of fact and is a primary means of entry into conversation with Sergeyevna.

The stage is simply set: ten simple white chairs sit in duet positions in front of a narrow horizontal scrim. Like a maze of potential meetings, or scattered in the aftermath of departed couples, the chairs create spaces on stage, in which to sit or stand, or run through. All else is implied (mimed) through gesture: even a scampering Pomeranian lapdog. Costuming hints at Europe of the 19th Century, with an elegance and sophistication one would expect from middle class characters.

What is so remarkable about this production is the breathing space the story is allowed to develop: a beautifully sparse script deftly performed by O’Mara and Cooper. The focus is truly on the quality of the performance.

Assisted by its meta-theatricality (at one stage we are told by Gurov the invisible dog we believe to exist, is not really there), this is a delightfully simple production which handles complex ideas. We, the audience, rely on every piece of information the actors speak as truth, just as lovers rely on each spoken “I love you”, to be true. Playing with themes of appearance and reality, deception and authenticity, the lovers lead a double life indulging in their affair, fuelled by their imaginations which collide in the reality they must confront. Alternating between direct address to the audience and intimate dialogue, the inward thoughts are outwardly exposed and contrasted to the outward expression (the concrete reality).

The Yalta Game, is a beautiful and poetic examination of truth and reality, and the tantalizing addiction of fantasy and is a sweet and stimulating introduction into Brian Friel’s work.