Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Uncle Vanya/Three Sisters, Wyndham’s Theatre

Review: Uncle Vanya/Three Sisters, Wyndham’s Theatre

Published in the Telegraph, 25.04.2014

British audiences have been spoilt for Chekhov in recent years. From the Young Vic’s explosive Three Sisters to the greyscale anomie of Headlong’s The Seagull, his plays have been pulled out of rural Russia and made instead to feel fresh and punchy – even pressing reflections of our own recession.

No such luck with this double-bill from Moscow’s Mossovet theatre, parachuted into the West End as part of the British Council’s UK-Russia Year of Culture. They’re there on the strength of director Andrei Konchalovsky’s reputation (built on Eighties blockbusters such as Runaway Train and, um, Tango & Cash), not on any particular merit. For all their authenticity, they most resemble two-bit touring productions, albeit in the original Russian.

What’s interesting is that both plays become tightly married to their historical moment, much as we might stage Shaw or Rattigan. Konchalovsky uses Uncle Vanya to highlight the costs of Russia’s industrialisation, underscoring Astrov’s speech about widespread suffering with photographs of famine victims and pairing over-worked scene changes with footage of modern-day Moscow. Three Sisters ends with videos of soldiers trooping off to the Great War, shattering Vershinin’s unshakeable optimism to smithereens.

Both productions are plainly staged, on an undressed stage then filled with furniture to form floorplans –essentially, rooms without walls. They’re self-aware, rather than strictly naturalistic, but neither offers theatricality or invention. Instead, they conform almost exactly to what you would expect from the two plays, albeit without a modicum of mood. It would make them ideal for first-time viewers, were it not for the obstacle of the language.

Logistics are a major part of the problem. We have to crane our necks upwards to keep up with surtitles, which themselves often fail to keep up with the action. That makes it practically impossible to take in text and performance together, flattening these strongly character-driven plays into straightforward plots.

Partly, that’s down to the acting style, which is far more illustrative than that we’re accustomed to. Russian directors often accuse us of missing Chekhov’s humour, but Konchalovsky’s cast are fools first and people second. They’re not given enough dignity to draw out their poignancy. Pavel Derevyanko’s Vanya pratfalls and parades in front of Elena until his love looks like folly and his meltdown melodramatic.

The three sisters, likewise, are all sighs and desperation. Yulia Vysotskaya’s Masha all but rugby tackles Vershinin when he leaves. Konchalovsky’s actors never roll their eyes when they can throw something across the room. It’s overbearing and, ultimately, deadening.

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