How much ‘production’ does a great play really need? I have seen both The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya many times, but I have never heard the text spoken with such a sense of discovery, moment by moment , so truly and fully lived as I did last week at Wyndham’s, where the Mossovet company are presenting a short season. It was a thrilling evening, except for the ‘production.’
I have nothing against individual or idiosyncratic interpretation if it comes from the core of the text and reveals an aspect of the play itself which may not be instantly obvious. Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters don’t need documentary film of the First World War, devastated forests, crowded cities, drifting ghostly figures; we get all of it through Chekhov himself and the performances by brilliant actors of characters who feel that somehow there is meaning to all this and that their sacrifices, disappointments and tragedies will make the world a better place when they have been long forgotten.
The Three Sisters feels slightly underpowered: as a minor example, Natasha’s dress sash is not particularly vulgar, nor is she – gradually I realised that what we are being shown is not the literal truth of her vulgarity but the real truth of the sisters’ attitude to her. Also, the offstage drama of the fire is so muted it might have happened somewhere far away, possibly even in Moscow. This works most of the time; everyone in the play realises that their lives are underpowered, not fully lived, and this is what is expressed in the acting. It became a bit too realistically monotonous however, and I could have done without the flashbacks of the girls’ dead mother – dressed identically to her daughters – whose appearance was so pointless that I thought at first she was an understudy who had lost her grip on the job.
Uncle Vanya is a much stronger production, also with extraordinary performances, particularly by Alexandr Domogarov as Astrov and Julia Vysotskaya as Sonya. Again, however, they were all working in a production which explains but does not illuminate. When Astrov, for example, shows his photographs to Elena, we are given a backdrop of the same photographs, hugely enlarged, as if the photographs themselves are the point of the scene. This means the real point of the scene, the unspoken relationship between two people, dwindles. Konchalovsky is mainly a film director and his effects were cinematic directorial nudges; they felt imposed on a play which was going on without them.
However, I saw both plays on the same day, and I felt soaked in Chekhov’s world and exalted by the genius of Chekhov himself. No playwright, certainly no English playwright, has written with such understanding about human nature, with its mixture of the ludicrous and the tragic, in its belief that we matter, with his own knowledge that we don’t. We are fortunate to have had so many productions of Chekhov in London recently. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov can survive any interpretation and one should take every opportunity to experience the plays again.
Review by Kate Beswick
Vanya, Yelena, Astrov and Sonya are all in love, with the past, with ideals and with each other. As their universe shifts around them they struggle to keep their emotions at bay.
In a backwater town in rural Russia, the Prozorov sisters contend with mind-numbing boredom by aspiring to a return to city life in Moscow.
Cast: Aleksandr Domogarov, Julia Vysotskaya, Pavel Derevyanko, Aleksandr Filippenko, Vladas Bagdonas, Natalia Vdovina, Alksandr Bobrovsky, Larisa Kuznetsova, Galina Bob, Aleksey Grishin, Vitaly Kishchenko.
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Design: Rustam Khamdamov
Performed in original Russian with English surtitles.
Sunday 4th May 2014