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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
UNCLE VANYA
at the Noel Coward and the Vaudeville

NON-IDENTICAL TWINS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Ken Stott and Laura Carmichael/ Ph: Nobby Clark

This is the second reinvention of Chekhov that London has seen recently – after Benedict Andrews' modernised reworking of Three Sisters at the Young Vic, a convention-busting Uncle Vanya that deserved to be in the West End for far longer than the five days it was scheduled to play the Noel Coward Theatre.

There is Chekhov heritage here. This is the building – formerly known as The Albery – that in 1945 hosted Ralph Richardson's Vanya with a Doctor Astrov played by Laurence Olivier. And in 1996 the play returned to the stage with Derek Jacobi in the title role and Trevor Eve as the doctor. But never has it seen a Vanya like this.

Moscow's Vakhtangov Theatre's re-imagined version arrives as part of a Russian West End season. And coincidently it opened just a few days after Lindsay Posner's London revival of Uncle Vanya 10 minutes walk away at the Vaudeville Theatre in the The Strand. It's hard to think of two more fascinating nights at the theatre than these two completely different Uncle Vanyas. Together they illustrate the most basic decision a director has to make when approaching a classic text: to ignore, or stay true to convention.

To return to Three Sisters for a moment, Andrews chose to ignore. His production was defined by one moment in particular, when the siblings and their guests broke into a rendition of Nirvana’s grunge rock classic (a classic within a classic) "Smells like Teen Spirit." The moment offended some traditionalists. But for many – me included – the song was brilliantly in tune with the despondent mood of Chekhov's vision.

Rimas Tuminas' Vakhtangov production of Vanya ignores convention in a slightly different way. Rather than update the action to the 21st century, as Andrews did with Three Sisters, Tuminas chooses to strip away the traditional setting of the play. There is no samovar bubbling away in the corner and no hint of the rural, rundown estate in which Chekhov sets his play. Instead the action takes place on an almost bare stage, but for a few basic pieces of furniture and a distant, stone lion. Beyond this hint of faded St Petersburg grandeur, the stage dissolves into pitch black, out of which the old professor and his young wife Yelena appear near the beginning of the play, and into which Sergey Makovetsky's diffident Vanya ultimately recedes, his cheeks, eyes and mouth having been pushed into a soulless smile by the fingers of his equally despairing sister Sonya (Yevgeniya Krevzhde). Both in look and mood, this couldn't be more different from Posner's traditional production.

On paper the London production has a lot going for it, not least a starry cast that includes Ken Stott in the title role, a fine Anna Friel as the bored Yelena, Laura Carmichael as the tragically unrequited Sonya, and Sam West as the object of Sonya’s love, Doctor Astrov. And despite what was reported as heckling from Sir Peter Hall (later explained as a semi-conscious lapse by the 81-year-old) most people who saw Posner's production before seeing Tuminas' would probably have left quite happy with a Vanya that, although initially stilted, grows richer as the performances establish themselves. This is especially true of Stott, who superbly captures the panic of a middle-aged man whose despair is rooted in knowledge that his future life has nothing to live for, but also that the future has arrived.

And yet this production feels as if it has been preserved in aspic. Christopher Oram's design of the Serebryakov’s country estate looks like a Vegas version of rural Russia: the kind of warmly lit, cosy, theme-park realism that is, well, unrealistic – or at least far less convincing than Tuminas' expressionistic vision, which suspends the play in a Beckettian and dangerous bleakness. 

Take Dr Astrov, played in the Russian production by Vladimir Vdovichenkov, who has the physic of a heavyweight boxer; whereas in the London production West's perfectly sound interpretation suggests an Astrov on the road to alcoholic self-destruction, Vdovichenkov's is utterly nihilistic. Like West's Astrov, he too complains that Vanya has stolen a bottle of morphine, but Vdovichenkov does so while injecting a narcotic into Vanya's grateful arm. This is a household that is not battling to stay away from an abyss, as in Posner's production, but one that fell into it long ago.

So while one of these Vanyas is exactly the production its audience would have expected, the other – ludicrously described as vandalism by one traditionalist critic – was brilliant.

 


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