The Mossovet State Academic Theatre arrives in London’s West End with a sizeable helping of Chekhov’s early masterpieces. Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters are performed in the playwright’s native tongue (with the aid of English surtitles) and Russian auteur Andrei Konchalovksy threads the plays together into a bum-numbing six-hour behemoth of a production. In staging them together, Konchalovksy seeks to elucidate the parallels between the two plays, so it makes sense from a critical standpoint to consider this double-bill as one production, rather than as two discrete events.
I must confess to going into this production with a mixture of intrigue and trepidation. It is tempting to view Russian language Chekhov as somehow more ‘authentic’ than the many anglophone productions that pop up with increasing frequency (a fact that the Wyndham’s Theatre is undoubtedly aware of in its programming). The Wyndham’s strapline for Konchalovksy’s production emphasises “the increasing appetite for international theatre in London”, and in choosing to opt for a ubiquitous name like Chekhov, the presiding hope is to attract audiences with the idea of ‘Chekhov as it should be done’. This being the West End, one has little reason to grumble about such things. Still, there exists a strange paradox at work here. Over the past decade, Chekhov’s plays have been interpreted in a number of innovative ways: Benedict Andrews brought his own brand of explosive iconoclasm to Three Sisters in 2012, Headlong thrilled audiences with last year’s starkly mesmerising The Seagull and Katie Mitchell is set to direct Simon Stephens’s new translation of The Cherry Orchard later this year. Indeed, this “appetite for international theatre” is as much a hunger for convention-breaking innovation in directorial terms, so it is strange and more than a little disappointing that Kochalovsky’s production is so straightforward and reverential.
Let’s start with the good stuff: the performances are, undeniably, rather brilliant. Indeed, this is ‘actors’ theatre’ writ large, with the Stanislavskian method of psychological realism pushed to its very limit. Yulia Vysotskaya is particularly mesmerising as both Sonya in Uncle Vanya and Masha in Three Sisters; in the former, she inhabits a simmering world of quiet desperation, yet in Three Sisters we witness a woman who finally succumbs to unbridled passion when she clings to the battery commander Vershinin, only to retreat once again into the malaise of country life by its end. I was also struck by Pavel Derevyanko’s portrayal of the frustrated ‘intellectual’ Vanya: Derevyanko’s performance moves effortlessly from the louche prankster into the explosive suicidal tirade of the play’s final moments.
Unfortunately, despite some admirable performances, Konacholvksy’s production remains strait-jacketed into a staid form of naturalism. This isn’t helped by a rather shoddy set design and the incongruous use of film between scenes. Admittedly, the inclusion of actor interviews in Three Sisters provides some interesting food for thought, with the cast sharing their thoughts on Chekhov and their respective characters. However, one is left with the feeling that their inclusion is more an attempt to disguise the rather clumsy scene changes.
The Mossovet State Academic Theatre is an institution with a rich and vital theatrical history and, despite these misgivings, Konchalovksy’s production does provide valuable insight into some of the methodology behind Russian language theatre today. Nevertheless, it strains under the weight of too much tradition and, like the gunshot that pierces our ears at the close of Uncle Vanya, misfires on both counts.
Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters is playing at The Wyndham’s Theatre until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see the Delfont Mackintosh Theatre website.