The recent production of Uncle Vanya at the Noel Coward Theatre in London has divided critics and public alike. One national newspaper deemed it “150 minutes of vandalising directorial vanity”. Another heralded the play as a “mercurially brilliant import” from Moscow’s Vakhtangov theatre. This is what we could term ‘marmite’ theatre- you will either absolutely love or equally hate this highly stylized version of Anton Chekhov’s great play.
Part of the Russian season in the West End, the director Rimas Tuminas has directed Uncle Vanya in an unusual way that defies all convention. In the programme we are warned that “there’s no Chekhovian mansion, no cosy arm-chairs, no table laid for lunch with a lacy tablecoth and hot samovar”. The stage is almost bare aside from a few chairs, table and bed, all dramatically lit to create a strong contrast between dark and light.
Previously Tuminas has previoulsy directed Three Sisters and the Cherry Orchard. It seems he is attracted to Chekov as a way of examining the essence of life through characters and emotions. He has said that “theatre is a laboratory of human relationships, joinging together people of the world”. Chekhov’s characters are full of contradictions. Elena, played by Anna Dubrovskaya, is the beautiful wife, in white silk, who dominates the stage with convincing allure. She is trapped in marriage to an older, insufferable professor. Her stepdaughter, Sonya, is a young girl who secretly pines for Dr. Astrov and is beautifully played by Maria Berdinskikh. Vanya himself is the farm labourer who holds the narrative and other characters together and adds some comedy.
There is a great cultural tradition of avant-garde theatre in Russia. This production draws clearly on the work of the famous Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold and his acting technique of biomechanics. His provocative theatre productions were renowned for their uncoventional settings and physicality. Here, in several scenes, Tuminas has characters strike poses, move doll-like around the stage and use exaggerated hand movements. This version of Uncle Vanya pays homage to Meyerhold’s stylized acting methods.
You can see why people find the beginning of the Theatre of the Absurd in Chekhov’s work. In one scene Sonya comes over to Vanya, alone on stage, and begins to direct his clownish movements like a puppeteer. The production also makes effective use of music and mime. Composer Faustas Latenas has created a memorable soundscape for the production. The music reflects the mood of the action on stage and underscores the drama; it can be both mournful and moving.
The play is long at over three hours with the added difficulty of being in a foreign language. Uncle Vanya is presented in Russian with English subtitles, as you would find at the opera. The audience seemed predominately Russian so the translation appeared more for the benefit of the critics. Nothing has been cut from the script and the play presents the text in full. However, the set looks very different to previous productions. The play may be set in the country but there is not a birch tree in sight. A large stone lion sphinx line dominates the back of the stage which represents St Petersburg. The entire production is laden with symbolism. The director claims he “has released the stage from the familiar and domestic, leaving behind a battlefield of passions, broken illusions and unrealized hope”.
Just down the road, on the Strand, a British company is presenting a much more traditional Uncle Vanya. Lindsey Posner’s production instead plays it safe at the Vaudeville Theatre and relies on big name stars such as Anna Friel and Anna Carmichael, better known as Lady Edith in Downton Abbey. Head though for this Muscovite production that is both unforgettable and brilliant. Chekhov’s great tragicomedy is presented here as a world of broken dreams. The Vakhantangov Theatre Company previously also visited the UK as part of the World Shakespeare Company. Let’s hope they return again next year with another equally compelling production.
Noel Coward Theatre, London
Until Nov 10