Uncle Vanya, Noel Coward Theatre, London

The Independent from 6 November, 2012

The coincidence looks as if
it might have been contrived by some ironic wag. A mere three days after the
opening of Lindsay Posner’s revival of Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville,
the West End now plays host to this wildly alternative approach to the same
play by Rimas Tuminas and the Moscow-based Vakhtangov company.

The contrast of styles
could scarcely be more striking. The English production is solidly traditional,
respectful, at times subtle, but also a tad constipated in its emotional
reserve and its heavy, literal-minded, cramping sets. The Russian production
goes for broke in the opposite direction.  There’s a blackly ebullient
abandon to their extraordinary account of Chekhov’s great tragicomedy of wasted
potential and blighted dreams. Out go the samovars, the birch trees and the
Stanislavkian realism. In come a kind of Expressionist slapstick that’s
calculated to show how listless despair and manic hilarity can be flip-sides of
the same coin and a sparsely junky non-naturalistic design. 

The thwarted energies of
the characters erupt in startling outbursts such as when Sergey Makovetsky’s
crumpled, dumpy Vanya shakes off a fit of the blues by taking Maria
Berdinskikh’s waif-like but determined Sonya for a mad, victory-saluting ride
round the stage on an iron plough.  Mood swings are underlined by
sardonically bathetic shifts of register in Faustas Latenas’s continuous
brooding-to-puckish musical soundtrack.

Drinking is an overly
decorous business in the concurrent English production, but here hooch is
unceremoniously siphoned off from a great jar by Vladimir Vvdovichenkov’s
strapping, charismatically volatile Dr Astrov, a figure much given to forcibly
re-positioning the other folk, including (still upright in her chair) the aged,
battily eccentric nanny portrayed by the remarkable 97 year old actress, Galina

Not all of it works. The
habit, say, of having the characters declaim to the audience rather than speak
to each other is not conducive to the eliciting of nuances. But Anna Dubrovskaya,
rolling a provocative silver hoop between suitors, is a seductively sultry and
statuesque Elena who can also descend with aplomb to erotic broad farce. And
Vladimir Simonov’s hilarious Professor is so imperturbable in his sense of
superiority to Vanya that he even puffs out his chest and invites the bosh gun
shots. When Benedict Andrews tried something along similar lines with Three
at the Young Vic recently, the result struck me as forced and
lacking in inner drive. This Uncle Vanya by contrast feels as if it
pouring from the collective soul of the company.