DramaLondonReviewWest End

Uncle Vanya – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Writer: Anton Chekhov

Director: Lev Dodin

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

There’s always something a bit special about seeing a play in its original language, particularly when performed by a renowned theatre company from the same country who are able to draw out many of the nuances that can often be lost in translation. So, it’s a treat to see The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg present their version of Uncle Vanyaat The Theatre Royal Haymarket’s for just three performances.

One of Chekhov’s most revered works, Uncle Vanya is the story of a family fighting for control of an ailing farmstead. Professor Serebryakov has returned home from his life as a city man of letters with his younger wife Elena to recover from gout. Now a strange presence in the house, the Professor and his brother-in-law Ivan Voynitsky know as Uncle Vanya clash in manner and outlook, but it is wife Elena that starts to attract attention particularly from the local doctor.

Lev Dodin’s production is a faithful but energised interpretation of one of Chekhov’s more difficult works, that uses a simple staging to prioritise the emotional charges at work in the household. While the show runs to almost three and a half hours, considerably overshooting its advertised runtime and retaining the detailed discussions about farming and the local community which weigh down the pace, the overall production is full of meaning and insight.

Particularly notable is the strong emphasis on the female characters, with Ksenia Rappoport’s wonderful Elena placed at the heart of the show. Initially, she is an elegant and forbidding figure, a figurine out of place in a world of haybales and forestry, able to control a room with the slightest gesture, commanding every man’s eye. The significance of this production is in watching Rappoport open her up to the sensations around her, not just the stifling nature of her current home, but also the tangible passion that develops with Igor Chernevich’s Doctor Astrov.

In Act Two – arguably the finest aspect of the production – we see Elena’s love for her husband, the affection between them in private lending credibility to their marriage, but Rappoport goes on to suggest a great ferocity beneath the surface. Her scenes with Chernevich are charged and watching the two of them futilely attempt to control their feelings for one another offers a refreshing view of the intense passion Chekhov implies. The result of this leaves Elena fragile and exhausted which Rappoport unpicks extremely well as the story comes to its conclusion.

Dodin also produces a fine balance between the pathos inherent in the characters’ struggles against their own feelings of insignificance, and some incidental comedy scattered through the show in physical gestures or asides that help to lighten the mood. This is reinforced by the clownish interpretation of Vanya, played by Sergei Kuryshev, who talks too much and makes for a slightly unlikely additional lover to Elena.

It’s a shame that the final confrontation between Vanya and the Professor (Igor Ivanov) lacks power, particularly against the vitality of the love scenes, ending the show with a whimper rather than the cataclysmic clearing of the decks that had been building. Kuryshev is overly pleading rather than outraged which saps the energy from the conclusion which starts to drag in the overlong final Act.

David Borovsky’s set design does much to reinforce the play’s themes, suspending three giant haystacks above the heads of the characters, as though the full weight of nature and the millstone of the farm were about to crash down onto them. Pavel Efimov and Alexander Pospelov light the whole thing splendidly, offering rays of freeing sunshine through every open door – which is rapidly shut out – and a beautiful burnt orange sunset as the tension finally plays out.

After a slow start, this production of Uncle Vanya balances Chekov’s interest with the land and visionary ideas of climate change, with the raging heart of his creations. And while it’s a little too faithful at times and some judicious cuts would make this an easier audience experience, seeing it in Russian, performed by a Russian theatre company shows us there’s still much more to learn from international approaches to Chekov’s work.

Runs until 17 May 2018 | Image: Maley Drama Theatre

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