sun 23/11/2014

Uncle Vanya, Vakhtangov Theatre Company, Noël Coward Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Uncle Vanya, Vakhtangov Theatre Company, Noël Coward Theatre

Anti-naturalistic Russian Chekhov buries humanity under burlesque and mannerism

The aftermath of Vanya's failed shooting in the Vakhtangov Theatre production

Hot on the heels of the latest English uncle over at the Vaudeville comes Dyadya Vanya from Moscow, bringing with it no samovar or old lace. Rimas Tuminas, the Vakhtangov Theatre's artistic director since 2007, has chucked out the Stanislavsky tradition of Chekhovian naturalism and in his own singular attempt to render what he thinks the characters feel as well as say serves up a stylised ritual that nearly suffocates the humanity of the drama.

There's no problem in daring a radical re-think: Benedict Andrews's contemporary take on Three Sisters at the Young Vic mostly made sense on its own terms. Yet whereas Andrews started out by imposing a physical distance between his sisters but slowly brought them together in team spirit, the Vakhtangov actors have little room to reveal their characters' complex inner lives. The open stage, with Adomas Yatsovskis's severe designs leaving space for some puzzling woodwork and the odd bit of dusty furniture (I couldn't see the "Petersburg lion" mentioned in the programme), isn't at fault. The main culprit is a hardworking score by Faustas Latenas that imposes its varied rhythms on nearly every scene; it only stops for a couple of minutes - why isn't quite clear - in one of the beautiful, married Yelena's encounters with her adoring Vanya.

Mannerism smothers many of the one-to-ones

This is nothing like the subtle soundscape of evocative Three Sisters master Paul Arditti. Satirical waltzes and jog-trots insist. Lugubrious organ tones dog tortured Doctor Astrov's second-act monologue of despair, overegging the anguish just when we wondered, like Astrov himself, whether he could ever be taken seriously; the earlier speech about deforestation is played out as a frenetic music-hall turn with mannered participation from the lovesick Sonya. Vanya's wasted life is sentimentally plastered over by a doleful trumpet tune and solemn wordless voices with all the subtlety of an Ennio Morricone film score.

One thing you do have to admire: the ensemble's sense of timing to a score that cramps their style. That style seems to me to be further compromised by the tricks and manners of the often contradictory movements they're asked to execute. A couple of the extended mime scenes do work: I like, for instance, the unnerving way bored, married Yelena wields a steel hoop and bowls it tantalisingly between her two furtive suitors, Vanya and Astrov. Others fail to read, and mannerism smothers many of the one-to-ones. Curiously the one truly absurd moment in Chekhov's play, when Vanya breaks out against Professor Serebryakov's plans for the future and attempts to shoot him, is rather low-key beside what's gone before. But there's offbeat humour in the far from repressed parting scene of Yelena and Astrov, and other scenes in the second half verge on the naturalistic, which rather compromises Tuminas's vision.

Anna Dubrovskaya and Maria Berdinskikh in the Vakhtangov Uncle VanyaOne senses in Sergey Makovetsky's Vanya and Vladimir Vdovichenkov's Astrov nuanced performances trying to break loose from the uncertain changes of tone Tuminas demands of them, though Makovetsky's clown face and gestures are apt, while Vdovichenkov settles to more realistic gravitas in the second half (if only the music would go away). Anna Dubrovskaya's Yelena (pictured above with Maria Berdinskikh's Sonya) is a compelling beauty who conveys the intended strangeness and carries out her physical stylisations well, but her vocal delivery is too low-key to project to the middle of the auditorium: a problem with the Sovremennik Company's Three Sisters last year in the same theatre, not confined to Dubrovskaya here. Vocally the most assured of the cast is Vladimir Simonov's rather too attractive Serebryakov. It's comic to think of 95-year-old Galina Konovalova as the programme's advertised "baby sister"; she is, of course, nyanya Marina, though as offbeat a nurse as you'll ever see in a Chekhov production.

Maria Berdinskikh, a young actress of promise, seems miscast as a not so long-suffering Sonya (the role is shared throughout the short run), surely too girlish for the mature heartache which is here anything but stoically voiced. She starts out as a hyperactive infant phenomenon and ends up delivering the big final speech about endurance rewarded with a scratchy-larynxed, angry militancy. Wrong or a plausible alternative? A standing audience clearly believed in it; I'm afraid I didn't for a moment. Three stars for endeavour and craft, then, but one for the concept.

Comments

I saw the performance in

I saw the performance in Barcelona two days ago and I completely agree with Mr. Nice. I know the play very well and so I found it all too arty and dull. The great text is lost in so much aestheticism. Apart from this, the director turns a drama into a strange comedy at some points, which is pointless to me. Mr. Nice, I agree with every single aspect you mention in your criticism.

I think one shouldn't write a

I think one shouldn't write a review, even such a childish one, while not being able to perceive anything in the performance. Mr. Nice reminds me of the famouse description of Natasha Rostova at the opera, when she could only record the movements and the clothes of the singers and distiguish who was singing at every moment and who was not (defamiliarization - know what it is?). I wouldn't say I love this Vanya, but I must admit that it's absolutely gorgeous - it expands consciousness and makes you see things you couldn't even imagine before.

I must be ‘childish’ and

I must be ‘childish’ and stupid too, since although I know the play well I spent far too much time trying to work out the point of the director’s many reinterpretations (not least Sonya as a squeaky schoolgirl and the crazy speech about the trees). I went willing to respond to a fresh take but I found this boringly self-indulgent, not always and unforgiveably dull at times – some of the low-key speaking didn’t help. Since you haven’t elucidated any details in why you thought it worked, I’ll stick to trusting this reviewer and my own judgment.

This was an incredible

This was an incredible production - the fact that David Nice did not appreciate it and put others off seeing it is a real shame. I met two people on Saturday who nearly didn't go because of this review. Why is it that people who review Chekhov seem incapable of accepting anything other than realism? Lindsay Posner's production at the Vaudeville is the most ghastly kind of museum theatre. The Arts Desk must get someone else - I won't trust this reviewer ever again!

You partly misunderstand me:

You partly misunderstand me: as my (qualified) praise for Benedict Nelson's Three Sisters should have underlined, I'm not 'incapable of accepting anything other than realism', and I'm not stuck on 'heritage Chekhov'. But just because someone dares to do something different doesn't necessarily make it great theatre. In both camps, the realistic and the stylised, there are ways of putting the essence of Chekhov across. Does the production illuminate the action, from whatever strange perspective, or obscure it? For me, the Vakhtangov evening only did the latter. So it's not a question of theatrical conservatism.

As for not seeing the lion, Charlie Daz, that must have been to do with my seat at the far right end of a row of stalls.

 

The fact that David Nice

The fact that David Nice couldn't see the enormous lion at the back of the stage makes me wonder how closely he was watching. I found this a thought-provoking performance, highlighting Chekov's foreshadowing of Absurdist Theatre. There were obvious nods in the direction of Godot in the second half. The ending was particularly moving, marred only by those audience members who insisted on clapping before the curtain had come down, when a few moments silence would g Have been more appropriate.

I couldn't agree more with

I couldn't agree more with David Nice's review. A horribly self-indulgent performance trying far too hard to be different. And can I add that the surtitles were too small to be read with comfort from the Grand Circle, where I had an extremely expensive and uncomfortable seat.

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