Chekhov’s plays are amongst the highlights of world culture. So to have the pleasure of seeing/hearing Uncle Vanya in Russian performed by one of the best theatre companies on the planet – the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg – is as good as it gets. Chekhov is famous for his nuanced blending of the tragic and the comic. He puts before us characters who are both trapped and yet yearning for happiness. Chekhov is the master of not saying what we mean. Instead, we talk about the weather. Lev Dodin’s superb direction brings out these Chekhovian elements clearly and compellingly. Dodin really brings home the Russianness of Chekhov. The samovar, the vodka, the singing, the dancing, the boredom, the weather, he brings it all to life before our eyes.
The set/space by the late great David Borovsky conjures up a space that feels like a large coffin. Wood panels on three sides enclose the space in a most claustrophobic fashion. The opening at the far left reveals a window which leads out into darkness or heavy rain. There is no getting away from this house, this room, this world. We are stuck here we each other. Uncle Vanya ( the peerless Sergei Kuryshev) pleads to be let out of this tomb.
Above the room are three large haystacks. They remind us that we are deep in the countryside – the play is subtitled Scenes From Country Life – but also suggest that we may be the living dead. At the end of the play, these Haystacks are lowered down onto the stage to envelop the actors so that they become one with nature.
The acting is superb. Like Real Madrid, the Maly Drama work together as a team. Talking of football this production is supported by the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. The quality of each performance is so compelling that I came away feeling that I had entered into each character’s particular dilemma. Chekhov doesn’t take sides. He presents people to us. He was a Doctor by profession. In fact, there is a Doctor in the play. Chekhov the writer/Doctor sees all his characters with both sympathy and detachment. And so there are no cardboard cutouts or caricatures in Uncle Vanya. Each and every single cast member comes alive. Take for example Igor Ivanov’s Professor Serebryakov. Often portrayed as the villain. This was the first time that I had appreciated his dilemma. In one memorable scene, he can’t feel his left leg and so is being fussed over by his wife Elena (Kseniya Rappoport), then by Nanny ( Vera Bikova) and Waffles ( Oleg Ryazantsev) and Uncle Vanya join them, they all try to help. They all think he is smug.
And yet we can see that he is as helpless and unhappy as they are. It’s a brilliant moment of black humour which only Chekhov could conjure. But Dodin’s direction adds touches of Russian nuance. Like the way Elena wraps blankets around him and kisses his feet.
The contrasts between the spoilt Elena and the long-suffering Sonia (the sublime Ekaterina Tarasova) are perfectly drawn. Sonia’s monologues about the redemptive power of love and work are hauntingly evocative. And Uncle Vanya’s entry with flowers for Elena only to discover her kissing Dr Astrov( Igor Chernevich) is both hilarious and sad. Another profound Chekhovian theme: everyone is in love with the wrong person!
You won’t see a better Uncle Vanya anywhere. This production by Maly Drama Theatre St Petersburg is the real deal. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket. Life-enhancing and utterly compelling. Unmissable.
Review by John O’Brien
Vanya (Sergey Kuryshev), together with his niece Sonya (Ekaterina Tarasova), has sacrificed his life managing the estate of Professor Serebryakov (celebrated Russian film actor, Igor Ivanov), his former brother-in-law and Sonya’s father. But when the Professor returns from the city with his glamorous young wife Yelena (multi-award-winning stage and screen actress Kseniya Rappoport) tensions spiral as their world is thrown upside down.
Chekhov’s tragicomic masterpiece of dashed dreams, thwarted and eternal love returns to London in Lev Dodin’s definitive interpretation of this classic play.
7.00pm May 15 TH (Press Night), 16th and 17th
Theatre Royal Haymarket, Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4HT