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Saturday 3 May 2014

Uncle Vanya, Play by Anton Chekhov, Mossovet State Academic Theatre Company directed by Andrei Konchalovski, Wyndham Theatre London, 8* out of 10

It all started at school with the red headed girl. My strategy to win her over was to impress her with my knack for learning languages. So I found myself enrolled in voluntary Russian lessons at my high-school in Salzburg (Austria) sitting next to the object of my desires.  What remains from that episode is my ability to state in passable Russian that Grigory is a tractor driver in a kolkhoz and my liking for the sounds most things Russian, from wistful novels to FabergĂ© eggs. And so, when I had the opportunity last night to join numerous elegantly dressed members of the Russian-speaking community in London to see Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” directed by Hollywood great Andrei Konchalowski I grabbed the high priced ticket without hesitation.

Like most of the males in the audience, I am a middle-aged man with a sizeable paunch, but contrary to most men in the audience I was not accompanied by a stunningly good-looking tall thin Russian lady half my age. Moreover, I belonged to the small minority of those present who depended on the English surtitles to follow the action on stage.

Vanya is member of a dysfunctional Russian landowning family and runs the estate for his brother in law the Professor, who is visiting the estate. The Professor was married to Vanya’s beloved late sister. Vanya’s family was so in awe  of his supposed intellectual prowess that they supported his career to the fullest and made over the estate to him and his first wife. In the meantime the Professor has remarried a young and beautiful wife, and Vanya at 40 years of age has realised that the old man is anything but brilliant; a legend only in his own mind.  So all the sacrifice Vanya’s family has made has been in vain and Vanya’s life feels wasted. Vanya is now dead keen to persuade the Professor’s wife to have fling with him. Meanwhile the Doctor, a friend of the family, who comes to visit the estate from time to time, is the object of desire of Vanya’s niece, daughter of his sister and the Professor.  But the Doctor, a man prone to melancholy, ecological sensibilities and vodka is impervious to Sonya's sincere adoration as she lacks more obvious womanly charms. Charms the doctor finds the Professor's wife having in abundance. As the Professor's stay at the estate is bringing the normal residents’ lives into disarray, some other quite comic characters such as the old nanny, the conflict averse "Waffles" Telegenin and Vanya’s rather stupid mother make their appearance.

Chekhov is brilliant at showing us how just below our cool, calm and collected surface, events can force us to show our hilariously embarrassing tragic-clownish selves. For the female characters this results in letting the hypocrisy of bourgeois conventions stop them from grabbing a little happiness when the chance presents itself. For the men in the play, it is a rush of the blood to other parts of their anatomy than those most adapted to rational thought. The result is a fascinating and entertaining portrait of the human condition ending in a moving outcry to the heavens before things settle back to their state of deceptive normality.

It is greatly enjoyable to see Chekhov performed in Russian by a company which has Russian sensibility at its heart. The comedy predominates as Pavel Derevyanko stands out as a fantastic Uncle Vanya on the verge of the nervous breakdown. On the other hand Yulya Vissotzkaya gives an moving performance with a highlight of true pathos in the role of Sonya.

Andrei Konchalovski’s production of Uncle Vanya in London is definitely worth a detour to the Wyndham.

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