Chekhov's Uncle Vanya: from Russia with grunge
What's the right way to do Chekhov? With lace tablecloths and endless cups of tea – or a blast of Nirvana? Stars from three new productions, including Anna Friel and Ken Stott, talk to Stephen Moss
Towards the end of the first half of the Young Vic's current production of Three Sisters, there is a spirited rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit – in place of what should be a folk song. I happened to be sitting next to two young Russians, and one told me he thought Kurt Cobain's existential angst was a bit too obvious for Chekhov. "Some of the subtleties have been lost in this production," he said. Perhaps. I did spend the interval humming Nirvana rather than thinking about the plight of the Prozorov sisters.
What constitutes a truthful performance of Chekhov? The question arises because this in-your-face (to use my Russian's term) production – which is playing to full houses in London – precedes a contrasting pair of Uncle Vanyas in the West End. One is directed by the much-garlanded Lindsay Posner and has a starry cast, including Ken Stott, Anna Friel and Sam West; the other, by the Moscow-based company Vakhtangov, promises to make the Young Vic production look, if anything, rather tame.
Vakhtangov, in their press release, poke fun at how Chekhov is often staged here: it's like Downton Abbey reworked by Dostoevsky, they imply, vowing to brush away the cobwebs with their version: "There's no Chekhovian mansion, no cosy armchairs, no table laid for lunch, with a lacy tablecloth and hot samovar [tea urn]; no feeling of 'home' where several generations have lived." Instead, we are promised a "battlefield of passions, broken illusions and unrealised hopes".
It is certainly one way of looking at this story of a middle-aged drudge, Vanya, whose life in the countryside is turned upside down by the arrival from the city of his bombastic brother-in-law and his much younger wife. The director, Rimas Tuminas, tells me via email: "I have eliminated all those valenki [felt boots] and galoshes, the samovar and the old clock. It is all useless. Through an actor, I can send the audience wherever I want. While everyone is there to drink their tea, life is breaking to pieces – and that is what must be staged. I am not fond of decor changes."
For all its Nirvana and radicalism, there is plenty of tea in the Young Vic's Three Sisters. This may underline director Benedict Andrews' point that despite its apparent impertinences (Ab-Fabbish Masha, shellsuited Andrey, a Natasha with an Australian accent, a fusillade of F-words), his production is still true to Chekhov. "It's faithful beat by beat," he insists. "My notion of fidelity is about getting close to the raw nerves of the characters. The play was about contemporary people when Chekhov wrote it, and I wanted it to be about people as they are today." By moving it to the present – to avoid it becoming "museum theatre" – he hopes to make the image of a society standing on the brink of revolution resonate with our own experience of living in post-financial meltdown.
When I meet Posner to talk about his Vanya, I immediately put the great samovar question to his cast. They say it will take its rightful place in what will be a more literal Chekhov than the other two. "Well, it is in the script," argues West. "And it was there in the very first production Chekhov did," adds Friel. "You don't have to have silver birch trees with sun-dappled lighting coming through," says West. "But you do have to have a samovar if people are going to talk about how cold it's got."
Friel sneezes in sympathy. "It's fine as long as you're using the stuff," continues West. "Chekhov said you shouldn't have anything on stage you don't use. He said you're not allowed to hang a musket over the fireplace in act one unless you shoot it in act four."
After spending an hour in his company, I can tell Stott will be perfect as Vanya, capturing both his world-weariness and mania. He exudes menace: you feel he could, if pushed, fire a pistol in anger. Posner is using a text by Christopher Hampton that sticks closely to the original. "I wanted something that was as faithful as possible," he says. "I'm a purist." But isn't there a virtue in reimagining so familiar a landscape? "I think one reimagines it anyway, if you approach a classic play as if it was new. Search in the right way and it will feel fresh. I've nothing against doing new versions, but I think you have to have a very good reason to do that with a great play."
Stott reinforces the point with characteristic vigour. "I remember walking past a poster for Winter's Tale," he recalls. "It said, 'Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare – adapted by David Simkin.' Adapted? So, not good enough, is it?"
Why does Chekhov resonate so much with a British audience? Is it the preoccupation with class, the society in decline, the way emotions are held in check behind ritualised actions until they suddenly burst? Or is it just a love of costume drama, the Downton Abbey syndrome? "I'd have thought the period dress is the least of those reasons," says Posner, "but the first two are quite pertinent."
"We do feel Chekhov has a sensibility that is peculiarly English," says West, but he never gets to develop the point because Stott talks over him. "It drives me absolutely stark raving fucking bonkers that Chekhov seems to have been commandeered by middle-class Englishness," says the Scot. "I don't know why. 'Oh Chekhov, yes, that's us, you know.'" He says this in a mock-English accent. "It fucking isn't you. It isn't! It doesn't belong to the English middle class. In fact, quite the opposite – whatever is the opposite of the English middle class."
The English, adds Posner, are accustomed to a subtext of repression and bleakness. "But you don't find that in Chekhov," he says. "Chekhov's rather front-foot. The characters often aren't aware of what they're doing and saying, but that's different from holding it in." They're not displaying boredom, Stott argues, but anxiety: "If you play it as English middle-class boredom, you've got a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick."
"It's not lethargic and it's not elegant," says Posner. "It's something else."
"Something spiky," adds Stott, spikily.
"There is a life of the soul in Russia that doesn't exist in England," continues Posner; his cast are searching for that soul, for the Russianness of their characters.
Friel, who turned down lucrative film work in the US to appear in Vanya, is approaching things in a way that would please Konstantin Stanislavsky, who directed the play's Moscow première in 1899. She visited Moscow, went to the Chekhov Museum, and tells me to read About Chekhov, Ivan Bunin's memoir of his friend, which she says movingly portrays the playwright's determination to work in the face of the tuberculosis that was to kill him at the age of 44.
While the rest of us ramble on, she texts a friend in Russia to get a native's view. Her approach to the young wife Yelena, a character sometimes misplayed as flighty or exploitative, will be nothing if not thoughtful. "Chekhov asks so many questions but never answers them," she says.
I ask Posner why he was so keen to direct Vanya. "I've reached an age where I can understand the preoccupations," he says. "The challenge of its complexity and delicacy is unsurpassed. I find it more challenging than Shakespeare."
Stott recalls doing Chekhovian scenes at drama school and misunderstanding them completely: "You have to reach middle age before you can understand a play like this." West agrees: "If you are 25, life goes through every pore and there's lots of it ahead of you. But these characters are desperate because they feel life is slipping away, and they're looking for it at any level and any cost."
With some trepidation, I read them Vakhtangov's press release dismissing the English way with Chekhov. They are unabashed. "We're trying to achieve the same thing," says Posner. "But we're keeping the samovar."
• Three Sisters is at the Young Vic, London SE1, until 3 November. Posner's Uncle Vanya opens on 2 November at the Vaudeville, WC2. Vakhtangov's is at the Noel Coward, WC2, 5-10 November.
Source (including photo): The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/oct/31/chekhov-uncle-vanya-young-vic
Review: The Telegraph
Read the review here