Uncle Vanya (Vakhtangov Theatre Company)

Michael Coveney, The WhatsOnStage.com Awards from 6 November, 2012

Passion without
sentimentality is the hallmark of this truly wonderful production from the
Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow,
and while the Lindsay Posner version at the Vaudeville may look more like
Chekhov, this one feels infinitely more authentic.

As Michael Pennington
points out in a programme note, this is not the Chekhov of Stanislavski’s
meticulous realism, but of the Expressionist divergence taken up by Meyerhold
and the man who founded this theatre in 1921, Evgeniy Vakhtangov.

It’s a theatre we know from
the brilliant productions of Yuri Lyubimov’s Taganka and Robert Sturua’s
Rustaveli, a theatre of tableaux, black cartoonish humour, mannequins and
movement, strident soundtracks and dark nights of the soul.

Thus Rimas Tuminas‘ savagely
decisive staging gives us the professor entering in procession of devoted
reverie; Elena exotically toying with a hoop; and, at the end of the second
act, when the answer is “No” to music after midnight, Elena and Sonya sitting
like ghosts at a decrepit old purgatorial piano, dust billowing all over the

Played in a black void – illuminated
with half a dozen screens with English sur-titles – Adomas Yatsovskis’ design
supplies a single lantern as a constant full moon, a well-worn desk and
workbench for Vanya’s accounts, a leather sofa, a supply of chairs when needed.
No sign of samovar, aprons, guitar, or farmyard animals.

All the characters resemble
remnants of themselves: an old nurse in a mad Katherine Hepburn rig-out and
wig; an unusually forceful, Chaplinesque Waffles, a wonderfully eccentric old
mother in cropped hair and blue spectacles, and a towering, self-regarding

Vanya’s first shot misses,
and the professor is lined up as if for a military execution, confident in his
survival. He’s indomitable. The accommodations and farewells are done as a
fluid, muscular ballet, with Astrov injecting Vanya before demanding back his
morphine, and Sonya rising onto the workbench in her speech of consolation
re-emphasised as one of stirring conviction and defiance.

experience the play as never before, and it’s so refreshing and exhilarating.
The central performance is that of Anna Dubrovskaya as Elena, utterly drained
in her futile marriage, yet utterly bewitching, a figure of incomparable feline
grace and beauty.

Sergey Makovetsky’s Vanya
is a shadow puppet of delicate movement and speech, a timid, slightly
half-witted creature who does the opposite of most British Vanyas in not
feeling sorry for himself, or carrying on like Oliver Reed in something by D H

And Vladimir Vdovichenkov
makes of Astrov a real rascal in a vast trench coat, bearing the rough weather
and poor condition of the peasants in his very demeanour, and showing Elena his
maps not in a scroll but a primitive camera with a smoking phallic knob on the
top of it. She gets the message.

But the performance of the
night, primus inter pares in this outstanding ensemble, is Maria Berdinskikh’s
as Sonya, a steely and unsparing portrait of devotion, consideration and, yes,
optimism; in the sense of looking on the bright side when there is none. And in
the context of the show’s plangent, circus-like, morbid festivity, she shines
like a beacon of intensity and goodness, the spirit of a nation.