Review: Uncle Vanya

It’s rare to see a completely astounding production. But Rimas Tuminas’s production for Vakhtangov Theatre is exactly that – Uncle Vanya as you’ve never seen it before. It is in the original Russian for a very limited run at the Noël Coward Theatre as part of the Russian season in the West End, and I urge you to get a ticket any way you can.

Unlike familiar, traditional Chekhov, Tuminas’s production is worlds away from lacy tablecloths, period country houses and comfortably bubbling samovars. Here, the subtext becomes the super-text: what the characters are thinking violently manifests itself visually and expressively.

Tuminas relocates this Vanya to a stark, displacing and surreal setting. Adomas Yatsovskis’s design is beautifully sparse, dominated by a pair of Meyerholdian, proscenium-like arches. We view the action through these twin apertures. The set is spare and timeless: a worn work-table, a gargantuan, leather-covered settle, a rusty, horse-drawn plough. This gives the space the atmosphere of transience – like a cavernous train station, or a mock-theatre. Actors emerge eerily, beautifully from a concealed entrance in the back wall, gliding half-lit through gloom before they reach the playing space. The whole stage has a liminal quality: all the characters seem to be waiting for something to happen.

Almost all the action is underscored with a soundscape from Faustas Latenas, Tuminas’s long-term collaborator. Combined with the non-naturalistic setting, this makes this Vanya all the more dreamlike and surreal. The soundscape is beautiful, chilling and sad: if anything could encapsulate the magnitude and hopelessness of Vanya in abstract form, this is it.

The single major flaw of this production, however, was its lack of comedy. For me, Vanya is only complete if it has laughs, and here, they are few and far between. This may be down to my knowledge of Russian (non-existent): it’s probable that jokes don’t translate well over achingly slow and frustratingly inconsistently transliterated sub-titles. While Telegin (Yury Kraskov) and Astrov create some hilarious moments during their drunken revelry this is relief as opposed to standard. Comedy came second to intensity in performance, and I came away feeling the pain of the characters more than the amusement of their situation. Pain and laughter together is a very Russian preoccupation. Dostoevsky said that tragedy and comedy are twin sisters, and the two of them together equal truth. There is rather more of the tragedy to this Vanya.

That said, this winner of Best Production at Russia’s Golden Mask Awards (the equivalent to an Emmy), more than deserves the hype. Standouts in a uniformly extraordinary cast include Vladimir Vdovichenkov as an outspoken and outrageous Astrov, and Anna Dubrovskaya gives a languid and delicious Elena. However, the overriding impression (as is often the case with outstanding Russian theatre) is of an organic ensemble, thinking and moving together. The style of performance is alarmingly sustained and direct, the vast majority delivered out to the audience. Watching, you are constantly and inescapably confronted.

Tuminas creates this piece as a network of high-impact visual images: from the surreal to the painful and beautiful, mixing the naturalism of real hay (in Vanya’s hair) or liquid (tea, alcohol) with his expressionist setting. Telegin chucks tea ludicrously over his shoulder; Astrov blows powdered morphine into Telegin’s mouth; Vanya conducts a conversation with Elena’s disembodied feet; Elena and Sonya bash at a dust covered piano in perfect sync, gazing into the audience. This production is arresting, electric, iconoclastic Chekhov. It’s among the best theatre I’ve seen, and it will leave you reeling.

Uncle Vanya runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 10November. For more information and tickets, please click here.