Chekhov’s Uncle Vanyais subtitled Scenes from County Life in Four Acts and the irony is apparent at the outset of Konchalovsky’s production with Moscow’s Mossovet State Academic Theatre. The noise of traffic plays against a spotlit girl in a straw hat and long white dress sitting idly on a swing with her back to us. She seems to be a symbol of a past age, the idyllic golden age of the gentry, which had been in decline for a century when Chekhov’s play received its Moscow premier in 1899 (the year after Wyndham’s Theatre was designed). As the country doctor, Astrov, remarks later, “At least it’s poetic here, even the autumn is beautiful… There’s the forest preserve and run-down country houses like the places Turgenev describes…” Astrov’s attempt to plant trees for future generations to enjoy is grimly commented on by the Tarkovsky-like filmed images projected onto the back of the stage between acts, images which range from the traffic in the wet night of a Moscow rush hour to felled trees and starving children. The Pushkinian dream of autumn has faded. When the Nanny is asked what the peasants have come for, she replies, “It’s the same thing as always. They were going on again about the waste land.”
Not that this stops Uncle Vanya trying to recapture romance with a bunch of “autumn roses, lovely roses, and sad …” But the roses end up being flung across the stage as not only despair but vulgarity (Russian ‘poshlost’’) destroy nostalgic dreams. The characters struggle to breathe and feel suffocated by their provincial existence. They are all growing older and attempts to revert to “the old way…the Christian way” ring hollow. Sonya’s mother, Vera (Russian for ‘faith’), is dead – although her ghost is perhaps the figure in white who turns her back on the present.
Possibly the strongest member of the very strong cast is Sonya, the character to whom Uncle Vanya is an uncle. Yulia Vysotskaya has an impressive emotional range. At times she sits “like patience on a monument,Smiling at grief”; at other times she is powerfully ironic, stoical or furious. Uncle Vanya himself is played by Pavel Derevyanko as an eccentric dandy who is dominated by his cigarette-smoking mother ((Irina Kartasheva). He is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes the clown but on other occasions, like Sonya, the focus of almost unbearable pathos when his well-meaning attempts are mocked, notably by the retired Professor Serebryakov, who is portrayed by Vladas Bagdonas as a disingenuous and empty windbag whose final advice is that it is necessary to ‘do something’. This pronouncement is met with scornful laughter from Astrov, compellingly presented by Alexander Domogarov as an intelligent but embittered drunkard.
Chekhov’s famous ‘laughter through tears’ is brilliantly enacted in this production as the characters suffer in their various ways from loneliness, introspection, nervous tension and even, perhaps, madness. Hope and despondency alternate; yearning is thwarted by despair and selfishness. Nataliya Vdovina blends flirtatious amusement, irritation and fear as the beautiful Elena Andreevna, Serebryakov’s young second wife. Alexander Bobrovsky’s Telegin, an impoverished landowner, moves convincingly between slapstick and melancholy. Marina, the nanny (Larisa Kuznetsova) combines calling the chickens and imaging destiny as she winds wool. The whole experience resolves itself into an overwhelming impression of mood – perhaps most memorably in Sonya’s final passionate hope that after all the trials and tribulations of this world, “We shall rest!”, a hope which inspired Rachmaninov’s plangent song with that title.
The surtitles enable a non-Russian-speaking audience to follow the action, but the mood of Konchalovsky’s wonderful production transcends linguistic barriers. Do not miss it.