Reviews West End & Central Published 9 November 2012

Uncle Vanya

Noel Coward Theatre ⋄ 5th - 10th November 2012

Gripping with Meyerhold.

Daniel B. Yates

Just as Chekhov has been enjoying an effulgent 2012, the playwright has become some kind of litmus test for just how artistically conservative British theatre is currently allowing itself to be.  Standing for the most sedate traditions, this dear old Russian who wrote so eloquently of life and its sad indelible stains has perhaps, so the feeling goes, been languishing in the wardrobe for too long; a grandfather who once wrote with a fresh corpse of a culture in his mouth is now, a century on, chewing mothballs. And given the role he and his buddy Stanislavski had in the domestic blandishments of psychological realism that is our naturalistic inheritance, this seems a fit and proper battleground. After the roughly uninamous nod of critical approval for Benedict’s Andrew’s slash & burn (then grow something ghastly and irradiated) tactics with the recent Young Vic Three Sisters, along comes another bunch of iconoclasts to make mincemeat of the theatrical imperative of preservation; to test our love of sweet and cosy theatrical jam-making, birch trees and drawing rooms, samovars full of aromatic piss and polite chair-work.

The Vakhntangov Theatre historically diverges from the Stanislavskian tradition at point of origin.  A pupil of Stanislavski, Yevgeny leavened his approach drawing on the work of the infinitely more interesting Meyerhold, whose avant-garde experiments in “biomechanics” were presaged in part to liberate theatre from text (Sergei Eisenstein was a fan, all that artful stiffness).  And so it is that Lithuanian born Rimas Tuminas’ production comes to produce a strangely angular array of non-naturalistic motifs:  From the stone lion that stands in for the distant Imperial capital marooned in Adomas Yatsovskis’s grey barren set, a projector with a funnel gently steaming like some Sunday supplement steampunk, the swapping of a samovar for a bulging glassware lab jar full of booze grabbed only seconds by Astrov after his swearing-off drink, to the general physical composition: a lot of swooning, elbows, stylised movements and a certain sinuously-clipped physical melodrama that serves to lift the complex Chekhovian emotions from the stage. Characters’ proximities to one another are shifted neatly along prim grids of emotional distance. In closing Vanya shuffles backward as the family move on, some sort of silent-film Vampiric retreat into darkness, rather neatly expressing to what raw exploitation might reduce a person, while with an ennui-saturated playfulness Yelena casts a bare metal hoop around her suitors’ bodies in a sharp demonstration of mutual imprisonment.

It should be said that unless you happen to have been born in a drawing room, none of this comes off as insanely radical. Tuminas doesn’t pack explosives into the cornicing so much as clear the crockery for an array of effective indoor fireworks.  While representing more of a break from tradition than the English telly-box Vanya playing across the road at the Vaudeville, it would be hard to square this production with the common reactionary grumble that auteurial messing distracts from the text (as if text is something not performed). For a start the writing is present and correct: twin tickers of surtitles give us Chekhov as written down, and it is a simple and fucking gorgeous thing to read while, for non-Russian speakers like me, the surging native tongue acts as phonetic counterpoint. But mostly Tuminas’ business is with a kind of heightened clarification, putting the psychic eddying of Chekhov’s characters into clear dynamic shapes, producing a vivid kind of formal graph that charts its emotional debt to the words with an alert sense of duty. Despite Faustas Latenas’ soupily wandering and ever-present score, from Russian chamber strings to plaintive trad jazz, the effect is one of discarding extraneous data with a bubbly and self-conscious air.

Which brings to mind Brecht’s criticism of old Vakhtangov’s method, prodding a gestic finger to remark: “when Vakhtangov’s actor says ‘I’m not laughing, I’m demonstrating laughter’, one still doesn’t learn anything from his demonstration”. It’s a fair point from the German who mooted pedagogy as the very life of things.  When Vladimir Vdovichenkov’s still randy paterfamilias Astrov and an in-love Anna Dubrovskaya as Yelena dance a old movie courtship dance, or when Professor Serebryakov stands in hammy defiance of Vanya’s gunshots while dressed as a kind of knock-off Indiana Jones, the approach reveals its propensity toward labouredness: And one could see that without the conspiracy between Chekhov’s subtle modulations and the production’s elasticurve drawings, that the principle to reveal affect as a kind of emotional micro-political drag could wear thin.  And yet the excellent Maria Berdinskikh’s militant arm gestures as young Sonya produce the most emotion of the evening, as she clambers upon her table, pumping arms like a young revolutionary speaker, extolling a tragic arc of servitude towards Christian recompense. And when Sergey Makovetsky’s understated Vanya declares he could have been a thinker like Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky were he not suffering an indentured life, here in this terse dramatic world where rawness cleaves to melodrama, one is inclined to believe him.

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Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

Uncle Vanya Show Info


Directed by Rimas Tuminas

Written by Anton Chekhov

Running Time 3 hour 15 minutes (one interval)

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