BWW Review: UNCLE VANYA, Theatre Royal Haymarket
Chekhov with a twist? Actually the twist is that this is Chekhov done dead straight - in Russian, for over three hours - by the celebrated Maly Drama Theatre of Saint Petersburg. What emerges is a Chekhov both more playful and more grim, the complex Russian psychogeography as accommodating of comedy and tragedy as its vast physical geography is accommodating of the steppes' emptiness.
We're in a familiar milieu. A middle class household is rotting like a scaled down Tsarist ancien regime, when an outsider gains influence and tilts the slow descent into something more akin to a helter-skelter.
The Professor wants to sell the estate (so turning out Vanya and his niece Sonia, and the loyal servants, into an unwelcoming outside world) while his young wife has excited the passions of ageing men, Vanya and Doctor Astrov, who realise that life is slipping (perhaps even slipped) through their fingers.
Under Lev Dodin's direction, the first half gets plenty of laughs. Sergei Kuryshev plays Vanya as an eloquent drunk, acerbic and cruel, but mainly towards himself. Igor Chernevich's Astrov wallows in prevarication, never quite saying what he wants, but keen to point out what he doesn't. Igor Ivanov turns the pomposity up to 11 as the insufferable Professor and you can't help hoping that his well-earned gout will see him off sooner rather than later.
Ksenia Rappoport floats over the ground in her long dresses and floats over the turmoil her mere presence creates (until she gives way to "live a little" - and it's a very little indeed). Ekaterina Tarasova is spellbinding as the plain Sonia, desperately infatuated with Astrov but imprisoned by her low self-esteem. The women are at their best mending their broken relationship and plotting how best to ascertain Astrov's true feelings towards Sonia. Girly gossip gorgeously rendered by Chekhov!
(As an aside, Tarasova is simply too beautiful, too intelligent and too charismatic an actress to play Sonia. There's suspending disbelief during a drama and there's being asked to believe that any man would reject her!)
In the second half, the mood darkens, and the broad comedy of the previous 90 minutes or so gives way to the brutal black comedy that surely elevates Chekhov into the pantheon of unequivocally great writers. There are times you want to look away, it's so painful to see people so trapped by their histories and attitudes, Natalia Akimova's matriarch blindly committing to the false god Professor makes you want to stride on stage and shake her to her senses.
Do you laugh at the folly of Man? Do you inwardly scream at these idiots for their hubris, their pride, their stubbornness? Or do you silently, secretly, resignedly acknowledge that we're all a bit like these poor men and women, it's just that their fates are played out over a single summer, rather than a lifetime? Chekhov looking straight through us yet again.
It is, though, a long haul, well over three hours with surtitles to read and a set of names and relationships to hold in your head as they tear themselves apart. It's the kind of show that you're so glad to have seen, but that hurts a bit when you're two hours in and there's still a long way to go.
But this Vanya is probably the baseline for all the Vanyas, Sisters, Orchards and Seagulls that any serious theatregoer should see - they'll all be lined up against this one as the "Chekhov Control", That's a testament to the tremendous efforts and performances of the cast and to the heft of authenticity provided by this company. Just give me a few years to digest it all before I see another please...