As I hope we’ll have occasion to reveal at the appropriate point, I have a particular interest at present in Uncle Vanya. So the opportunity to see two – very different – productions on the same day seemed too good to pass up. In any case how often do you get to see any play twice in twenty-four hours, to compare two casts and two interpretations? Which is the reason I took myself off to a matinee of Lindsay Posner’s new staging at the Vaudeville Theatre and then hot-footed it down the road to the Noel Coward Theatre to see the production by Russian theatre company Vakhtangov. The former, which stars Ken Stott and Anna Friel, is scheduled to run until 16 February (and there were plenty of empty seats); the latter has just two more totally sold-out shows to go.
What to say of the British version? Perhaps that’s it’s rather British – and in not a very good way? “Polite” is another word that I would apply to it, and that’s before getting to “ordinary” and “uninspired”. Vanya is a drama of a group of people trapped by circumstances on a distant country estate. Their dreams are unrealised, and during the course of the play their illusions are shattered. Just beneath a surface of order (and often not then) they are passionate and desperate people. Yet there is little of either quality or indeed of energy in an enervating presentation that comes complete with conventionally elaborated set, two interminable scene-changes and several decent frocks for Anna Friel. (For Michael Billington’s so-so review, go here.)
There’s a samovar too – and see Stephen Moss’s recent Guardian article ‘From Russia with grunge’ for a thoughtful discussion of the importance (or not) of the samovar in Vanya, as well as interview contributions from Lindsay Posner and several of this cast. He also considers the distinct approach to Chekhov of director Benedict Andrews on display in the recent Young Vic Three Sisters.
I did try, but I just could not get involved in the lives and loves of the characters on the Vaudeville’s rather pokey stage. They seemed simply to be reciting their lines, and truly inhabiting neither the space nor their roles.. Perhaps I should put it down to the curse of the West End weekday matinee, which despite the still-high ticket prices is rarely the occasion on which to see a production at its best.
What I’m not prepared to write off is the approach that might, with a degree of licence, be called ‘naturalistic’. That is, a late-nineteenth century Russian setting with the recognisable relationships of television period drama. Lucy Bailey’s enthralling Vanya at The Print Room earlier this year also worked with certain of the Chekhovian conventions, but it reached far, far deeper into the complexities of a drama that was staged in an almost shockingly intimate setting.
Director Rimas Tuminas and his Vakhtanghov company (playing in Russian) do away with almost all of the accretions (including the samovar) in a production that Michael Billington this week hailed as ‘mercurially brilliant’. This is Chekhov played on an almost bare open stage, although there is a stone lion deep in the background, a carpenter’s bench and a little group of ill-matched wooden chairs. The costumes are modern but non-specific. And the style is a remarkable combination of expressionism, acrobatics, mime and music (there’s a great score that runs almost throughout) and clowning, even as the details of Chekhov’s text are treated with great respect.
Like Billington, I found it thrilling. Although the playing time was nearly forty minutes longer than at the Vaudeville (and although my knees were crammed into entirely inadequate ‘Grand Circle’ leg-room) I was captivated by the imaginative world unfolding before me. The dramas and dilemmas drew me in, even as I contended with the sur-titles, and this felt like theatre that was fully alive rather than, as earlier in the day, encased in aspic.
The ending of Vanya, of course, is the great test of any production. The disturbances in the lives of Vanya and his niece Sonya are past and they have settled down once again to work together and, eventually, to die alone. Sonya has a concluding speech – an affirmation of faith – in which she comforts Vanya and looks ahead to the rest of their lives and also to the afterlife beyond. This is the moment at which Sir Peter Hall disturbed the press night with his comments from the stalls.
At the Vaudeville, Laura Carmichael plays this conclusion with weary resignation, her head rather awkwardly laid on a table and the curtain coming in as she finishes. But for the Russians Yevgeniya Krevzhde is boldly defiant, standing atop the workbench and railing against any dying of the light. Yet her exultation is tempered by what comes after, as she first dances slowly with a puppet-like Vanya and then fixes a false grin on his face as she removes his glasses, leaving him to shuffle backwards into the dark as a lone spotlight illuminates the stage.