(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/7.)
You could hardly have a greater contrast than between the stolid Uncle Vanya that has just opened at the Vaudeville and this mercurially brilliant import from Moscow's Vakhtangov theatre. British Chekhov tends to offer variations on the realism of Stanislavski. This dazzling production by Rimas Tuminas is in a wholly different tradition: that of the Russian director Meyerhold, who evolved a system of acting based on sports, acrobatics and clownish grotesquerie.
Tuminas preserves every word of Chekhov's text. But nothing looks or sounds as we expect. The
stage is free of clutter, although we glimpse a distant prospect of a stone lion symbolising Petersburg. Characters are also vividly redefined: the Professor and his young wife, Elena, whose rural visit causes so much havoc, are normally seen as tragically mismatched; here they clearly still enjoy an actively rumbustious sex-life and, when Vanya tries to shoot the old Prof, Elena is the first to interpose her
body. And for all his ecological fervour, the visiting doctor, Astrov, is also a drunken buffoon who, in his cups, engages in a disastrous bit of DIY carpentry with the Chaplinesque Waffles. Meanwhile, Vanya's niece, Sonya, is no dowdy frump but a young girl whose passion for the doctor verges on hysteria.