Passion without sentimentality is the hallmark of this truly wonderful production from the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow, and while the Lindsay Posner version at the Vaudeville may look more like Chekhov, this one feels infinitely more authentic.
As Michael Pennington points out in a programme note, this is not the Chekhov of Stanislavski's meticulous realism, but of the Expressionist divergence taken up by Meyerhold and the man who founded this theatre in 1921, Evgeniy Vakhtangov.
It’s a theatre we know from the brilliant productions of Yuri Lyubimov's Taganka and Robert Sturua's Rustaveli, a theatre of tableaux, black cartoonish humour, mannequins and movement, strident soundtracks and dark nights of the soul.
Thus Rimas Tuminas' savagely decisive staging gives us the professor entering in procession of devoted reverie; Elena exotically toying with a hoop; and, at the end of the second act, when the answer is “No” to music after midnight, Elena and Sonya sitting like ghosts at a decrepit old purgatorial piano, dust billowing all over the stage.
Played in a black void – illuminated with half a dozen screens with English sur-titles – Adomas Yatsovskis’ design supplies a single lantern as a constant full moon, a well-worn desk and workbench for Vanya’s accounts, a leather sofa, a supply of chairs when needed. No sign of samovar, aprons, guitar, or farmyard animals.
All the characters resemble remnants of themselves: an old nurse in a mad Katherine Hepburn rig-out and wig; an unusually forceful, Chaplinesque Waffles, a wonderfully eccentric old mother in cropped hair and blue spectacles, and a towering, self-regarding professor.
Vanya’s first shot misses, and the professor is lined up as if for a military execution, confident in his survival. He’s indomitable. The accommodations and farewells are done as a fluid, muscular ballet, with Astrov injecting Vanya before demanding back his morphine, and Sonya rising onto the workbench in her speech of consolation re-emphasised as one of stirring conviction and defiance.
You experience the play as never before, and it’s so refreshing and exhilarating. The central performance is that of Anna Dubrovskaya as Elena, utterly drained in her futile marriage, yet utterly bewitching, a figure of incomparable feline grace and beauty.
Sergey Makovetsky’s Vanya is a shadow puppet of delicate movement and speech, a timid, slightly half-witted creature who does the opposite of most British Vanyas in not feeling sorry for himself, or carrying on like Oliver Reed in something by D H Lawrence.
And Vladimir Vdovichenkov makes of Astrov a real rascal in a vast trench coat, bearing the rough weather and poor condition of the peasants in his very demeanour, and showing Elena his maps not in a scroll but a primitive camera with a smoking phallic knob on the top of it. She gets the message.
But the performance of the night, primus inter pares in this outstanding ensemble, is Maria Berdinskikh’s as Sonya, a steely and unsparing portrait of devotion, consideration and, yes, optimism; in the sense of looking on the bright side when there is none. And in the context of the show’s plangent, circus-like, morbid festivity, she shines like a beacon of intensity and goodness, the spirit of a nation.