Uncle Vanya – review

Michael Billington, The Guardian from 6 November, 2012

You could hardly have a
greater contrast than between the stolid Uncle Vanya that has just opened at
the Vaudeville and this mercurially brilliant import from Moscow’s Vakhtangov theatre. British Chekhov
tends to offer variations on the realism of Stanislavski. This dazzling
production by Rimas Tuminas is in a wholly different tradition: that of the
Russian director Meyerhold, who evolved a system of acting based on sports,
acrobatics and clownish grotesquerie.

Tuminas preserves every
word of Chekhov’s text. But nothing looks or sounds as we expect. The stage is
free of clutter, although we glimpse a distant prospect of a stone lion
symbolising Petersburg.
Characters are also vividly redefined: the Professor and his young wife, Elena,
whose rural visit causes so much havoc, are normally seen as tragically
mismatched; here they clearly still enjoy an actively rumbustious sex-life and,
when Vanya tries to shoot the old Prof, Elena is the first to interpose her
body. And for all his ecological fervour, the visiting doctor, Astrov, is also
a drunken buffoon who, in his cups, engages in a disastrous bit of DIY
carpentry with the Chaplinesque Waffles. Meanwhile, Vanya’s niece, Sonya, is no
dowdy frump but a young girl whose passion for the doctor verges
on hysteria.

But the joy of the
production lies in its total-theatre mix of words, music, mime and symbolism.
Anna Dubrovskaya’s Elena, stunning in white silk, bowls a circus hoop. Astrov shows
her his images of deforestation on a projector with an unmistakably phallic
funnel that emits puffs of steam. And there is an extraordinary moment at the
end when Sonya ministers to Vanya, beautifully played by Sergey Makovetsky, as
if he were a run-down machine that she had to lovingly reassemble. Anyone who
saw the Vakhtangov when they brought Measure for Measure to Shakespeare’s Globe
this summer will know they are a first-rate troupe. Although this isn’t the
only way to play Vanya, their Chekhov has an unforgettable
expressionist audacity.