Strangers on a train

On a hot day in Melbourne, Barry Otto is rehearsing his one-man performance in the State Theatre Company’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Based on Leo Tolstoy’s infamous novella about jealousy, marriage and murder, Otto is currently inseparable from the script.

“It’s just taken up all of my time,” Otto says. “I carry the script everywhere like a Linus blanket. I can’t get away from it.”

The enigmatic acting veteran is excited but terrified about the challenge to perform Tolstoy’s late career work on stage, alone. 

“I find it a great piece for an actor. I’m slightly daunted too, because it’s a terrifying challenge. There are a lot of emotions to go through in it and technically and vocally it moves on and sweeps along. I’m working very, very hard and I want to be so good in it. It’s a big one, I can tell you.”

Written by Leo Tolstoy in 1889, The Kreutzer Sonata was censored in Russia on publication while Theodore Roosevelt’s response to the novella was to call Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert”. Inspired by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 9, the novella’s main character Pozdnyshev tells a train of commuters a story about the events leading up to him murdering his wife. Believing the mother of his children was having an affair with a younger man and a fellow musician, the two perform Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 9 (aka The Kreutzer Sonata). Pozdnyshev finds the two together and murders his wife while the young violinist escapes with Pozdnyshev escaping arrest on grounds of adultery. Controversial for its views on sex, marriage and celibacy, director Geordie Brookman wanted to stage it after re-discovering it and thinking it was a powerful work about the destructive side of men.

“And the dark tendency men have to demand ownership and dominance both over their world but in particular their women,” Brookman told The Adelaide Review last year. “It’s an issue that remains incredibly current. We make strides towards gender equality and then we keep getting them pulled back and I’m really interested in what is that core element deep down in many that is so destructive.”

Otto: “It’s a 32-page monologue, really. And it’s an enormous amount to get into your head but I need it in my head to tell this story. I have to have the whole thing there. We’re thick into rehearsals now and it’s great pulling it to bits, we’ve got Geordie and Sue Smith [scriptwriter] here. I’m in pretty good hands. It’s a great piece and we’ve got the other major component to come, the music [which will be overseen by Gabriella Smart], which is another emotional experience all on its own.

“The music is an accompaniment to the story which was Tolstoy’s inspiration; taking that erotic piece and putting together this incredible story, which is an amazing piece about a marriage. It’s so well told, you know, in open truth from the male point of view, because it’s his story. It’s the male being honest, looking back on the murder, going back on his life to tell it as an exorcism, looking for some sort of forgiveness. ”

The father of actors Miranda and Gracie, Otto was a former graphic designer who appeared in theatre and television before his big break came as the lead in Ray Lawrence’s weird and wonderful, Bliss. With supporting roles in Australian standards such as Strictly Ballroom and Cosi, Otto was one of the founding actors of the Queensland Theatre Company. After The Kreutzer Sonata he will be seen in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, due for release in late March. Otto has no plans once he finishes The Kreutzer Sonata’s Adelaide run.

“I haven’t got a clue really. I thought I might back off for things to do at home. My wife and I and two of my children live at home even though they travel, one of them travels a lot, Gracie [Otto, filmmaker, actress and model]. My son’s anchored here at home with us. Miranda [Otto, actress Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King, The Thin Red Line and War of the Worlds] and her husband Peter O’Brien [Underbelly, X-Men Origins: Wolverine] live mostly in Australia, but they’re all over the place sometimes too, in America and Europe. But I’ll probably back off for a rest after this [The Kreutzer Sonata] as I’ve got a mountain to climb here.”

Otto says the mountain that is The Kreutzer Sonata affects him as it explores the dark side of men and relationships.

“It starts with falling in love and then you go round and round, and there are five children, it is something that goes off, gets derailed - like a lot of marriages. They last even less time nowadays, a lot of them. It’s a very honest look at two people in a relationship, in a marriage, and the complexity of it.”

The Kreutzer Sonata

Friday, February 22 to Sunday, March 17

The State Theatre Company Scenic Workshop, Adelaide Festival Centre


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