Chekhov calls the shots

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Anthony Hopkins has set it in Wales. Peter Stein has set it in Italian. Bill Bryden is playing it straight. And Howard Barker has written the sequel. Why all the fuss about `Uncle Vanya'?

It's the most famous botch shot in world drama. Or rather botch shots, for Chekhov's Uncle Vanya misses the Professor - the man who was once his idol and is now the bete noire he blames for all his disappointments - not once but, farcically, twice.

In Peter Stein's splendid new production, which is visiting this year's Edinburgh Festival, the hero's bungled rage results in a coup de theatre that heightens both the absurdity and the painfulness of the incident. Instead of hitting the Professor, the second bullet spectacularly shatters a vase of flowers. Not just any old blooms, either, but the very roses which the infatuated Vanya had been on his way to present to Yelena, a gesture rudely nipped in the bud by his catching her in the arms of another man. Flowers can rarely have led a more luckless life.

The characteristically Chekhovian mixed mood of this shooting fiasco is rather less well achieved in August, Anthony Hopkins's soon to be unveiled film of a Vanya relocated amongst the landed gentry of 1890s Caernarvonshire. The shots there send Leslie Phillips's snooty Professor haring in panic across the fields with his head under a cloth. In the interest of making a fairly unsubtle comic point (the Prof is able to work up quite a speed for all his much harped-on gout), the movie distracts attention from the real focus of humiliation in the scene, namely Vanya.

It's not just the Professor but Chekhov himself who becomes a target in Howard Barker's radical rewrite of the play which opens tonight at the Almeida. "I remade Vanya," Barker declares, "because I loved his anger, which Chekhov allows to dissipate in toxic resentment." So here, the protagonist's gun (serial number 7786955797, in case you were wondering) is allowed to take sure aim and, by kind permission of the adapter, fire four bullets into the Professor's face.

In Barker's typically untentative "Notes on the Necessity for a Version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya", the play is characterised as a "danse macabre. Its charm lies in its appeal to the death wish in ourselves. In its melancholy celebration of paralysis and spiritual vacuity it makes theatre an art of consolation, a funerary chant for unlived life." Rebelling against the defeated destinies they're assigned in the original, the characters suddenly start acting here like the star pupils of an assertiveness training course. Homely, stoical Sonya, aching with unrequited love for Astrov, succeeds in getting her hands on him and makes the most of the opportunity by choking him to death. "There will be some who will say this act - this deed - was motivated by spinsterish frustration," she announces. "But I saw Chekhov there. Hovering. Always hovering."

Indeed, Chekhov does more than hover, he actually hoves into view, floating into the play across the sea which, symbolising both euphoric possibility and narcissistic illusion, materialises outside the collapsing house. Presented as a doctor who cannot heal himself, the source of infection from whom Vanya and Co must keep their distance, Chekhov expires on stage in the midst of the creations whose mutinous behaviour has hastened his end.

Adaptations of Vanya have not hesitated to uproot the play from the world of samovars and birch trees, and of a fretful Russian landed class on the point of economic extinction, and transplant it in different cultures and climes. The Professor - who triggers the summer of unrest by retiring with his beautiful, indolent young wife to the country estate Vanya has managed on his behalf - becomes, in Michael Blakemore's recent film, Country Life, an odiously pommified theatre critic returning in 1919 to an Australian sheep station after two decades in London. In August, he becomes a walking symbol of how the treacherous English "patronise the Welsh by instinct" (in the words of its adapter Julian Mitchell), his querulous complaints about provincial life now directed specifically against Wales: "Wales, it's like being in exile... I feel I've fallen off the world and landed on some undiscovered planet."

All of these reworkings are based on the assumption that despair at the unlived life and an impotent sense of waste are phenomena not confined to pre-revolutionary Russia. Howard Barker's version, in sweeping contrast, parodies the notion that their - or any - culture can explain and justify the characters' failure of will. While Vanya is making short work of the Professor off-stage, Sonya tries to keep a grip on things by babbling the standard Marxist analysis ("Our paralysis is nothing more than the reflection of our economic crisis..." etc), her speech punctuated and brought to a halt by the sound of the shots. Here, we are led to believe, the only thing that prevents Chekhov's characters from casting off the shackles of frustration and depression is the tyrannous whim of Chekhov.

But you don't cure the paralysed and the crippled by manufacturing a gravity-free atmosphere in which they can float around and give the illusion of being just as mobile as the able-bodied. And this, in psychological terms, is what happens in the wild extrapolations of this rewrite. The irony is that Barker, for all his talk of liberation, keeps his dramatis personae under rigid control, whereas Chekhov, through the richness of the subtext and by not spelling certain things out, creates a flexibility of suggestion which grants his characters an important freedom: the freedom of being open to interpretation.

Peter Stein's account of the play is a rich reminder of this. Talking to the actors backstage at the Teatro Argentina in Rome, I learnt how the production came about, its origins shedding light on some of its emphases. The great German director had seen a rehearsal in Parma of a play called L'Attesa ("Expecting") in which a countess and a peasant girl discover that they were made pregnant on the same night by the same man, Casanova. The actresses (Madalena Crippa and Elisabetta Pozzi) alternated in the roles and it was watching their rapport that made Stein want to direct them as Yelena and Sonya.

These are young women who are likewise brought into awkward intimacy through their being drawn to the same man, the situation complicated by the fact that the bewitching, bored Yelena is Sonya's stepmother. Sonya is often played as though her alleged plainness were a matter of fact as well as of self-image, but, in Stein's production, it's a telling comment on the others, especially Astrov, that they have failed to notice the quirky unconscious attractiveness of this ardent long-limbed redhead. There's one beautifully judged moment when Remo Girone's burly, virile Astrov brushes against Sonya's body and for a split second you feel the frisson of an imminent embrace. Then you realise, with a bathetic thud, that he is merely reaching past her for another bottle of vodka. The possibility of happiness beckons him but he's looking in the opposite direction.

With the trees at the end just on the turn into autumn, this is a production that shifts into unforgettable tragic bleakness in the final act. Roberto Herlitzka's gaunt Vanya is like his own ghost as he sits down to the account books, the click of the abacus beads and the scratching of nibs on paper seeming to distil, in heightened sound, the desolation of the future he faces.

What Stein refuses to do is editorialise. Bill Bryden - whose new production of Vanya opens at Chichester on 9 July with a Rolls-Royce cast that includes Derek Jacobi, Alec McCowen and Frances Barber - is very amusing about the lack of subtlety in certain interpretations. He cites a film version by Andrei Konchalovsky which, taking its cue from Astrov's ecological enthusiasms, "begins with about 10 minutes of forest devastation, stills of trees being cut down, and eventually somebody says, `what a nice day' ". In Hopkins's movie, footage of a mining accident and a worker furiously peddling to the big house to fetch the doctor punctuates the scenes of listless leisure among the better-off. This class point reaches a crass climax with melodramatic shots of Gawn Grainger's Astrov desperately striving to save the injured man's life by sawing his leg off, followed by a glimpse of the Professor as he gives his gouty knee a hypochondriacal rub.

I must confess to finding that sort of thing a great deal more tolerable in its clumsy efforts to politicise Chekhov than I find Barker's arrogant, context-free, post-humanist revisionism. An apt contrast would be with Trevor Griffiths, who takes the honourable line that Chekhov's stories are a finer achievement than the plays, with a broader social reach in their realistic depiction of peasant life. In Piano (1990), Griffiths accordingly upped the peasant count from other sources in a reworking of Chekhov's untitled first play, turning a tragicomedy of blighted idealism into a piece about class conflict.

As it happens, Michael Frayn's celebrated adaptation of that same work, Wild Honey, can now be seen in Alan Ayckbourn's extremely enjoyable revival at his new Scarborough Theatre. Despite the birches and the Russian bric- a-brac, there's an ineffable Englishness to the proceedings as they are acted here. This makes you realise that the hero, Platonov, that electric eel in a barrel of dead provincial fish, is a prototype of the tangle-producing mavericks (Norman in The Norman Conquests, Leonard in Time and Time Again, etc) that you find in the work of Ayckbourn, whose talent for eliding the tragic and the comic has profited from the Russian author's example. Writing a sterile counter-drama like Barker's is happily not, Frayn and Ayckbourn confirm, the only way of rising to the challenge of Chekhov.

n Howard Barker's `(Uncle) Vanya' opens tonight at the Almeida, London N1 (0171-359 4404); Peter Stein's `Uncle Vanya' is at the Edinburgh Festival, 29-31 Aug; Bill Bryden's `Vanya' opens on 9 July at the Minerva Studio, Chichester (10243 781312); Michael Frayn's `Wild Honey' is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (01723 370541) to 6 July; `August' opens in London on 9 August