Hitting the mark

Uncle Vanya set in a birch grove in Rome? Della Couling saw Peter Stein's new staging of Chekhov en route to the Edinburgh Festival
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Chekhov, like Shakespeare, gives expression to universal human situations. Last week, in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, I witnessed the final rally of the Olive Tree bloc, which has now just - by a whisker - won the Italian elections. The fragile optimism of the speakers' sentiments, castigating everything from mad cow disease to endemic corruption, and calling for the creation of a better world, seemed an echo of Dr Astrov's long harangue against the senseless destruction of what today we would call the environment, in Act 1 of Uncle Vanya. And in fact, at the end of that speech, in Peter Stein's sensitive new production at the Teatro Argentina, there was a spontaneous outburst of cheering and applause from an audience no doubt sensitised by current political events.

But it is not just the topical outburst of idealism in Italy that makes Uncle Vanya seem so relevant there. Whereas in Britain we can enjoy the wry humour and irony of Chekhov as onlookers, in Italy, as in Russia, beneath the muddle and sheer nonsensical behaviour - the dolce far niente that can turn bitter with age - there runs a strong undertow of melancholy and despair. In Milli Martinelli's excellent Italian translation, the action could equally well be situated on an estate in the Campagna some hundred years ago. It is all very recognisable.

Roberto Herlitzka's Vanya is startlingly different from the Vanya usually seen on British stages. Much more smartly dressed, he is a man not only without charm, but rather repulsive, egoistic, his self-pity palpable: his seediness is internalised. Elisabetta Pozzi's Sonya is also accurately tuned: a plain spinster, verging on hysteria and eccentricity. Both are working against themselves. And Maddalena Crippa's Yelyena is more blatantly sexual: she flirts not only with Astrov (Remo Girone) but even with Vanya. The silent scream of her frustration is betrayed in provocative body language.

Stein and his cast bring out in a succession of subtle details the self- destructive tendencies of all the characters and the pity of their situation. When the elderly professor Serebriakov (Renzo Giovampietro) is asked in despair by his young wife Yelyena, "What is it you want from me?" he stops stroking her breasts and sighs wistfully, "Niente" ("Nothing"). It is with such touches that Stein secures our compassion for Chekhov's characters - from Vanya himself, who fails to shoot the exasperating professor, but has accurately shot himself in the foot all his life, to the human doormat Telegin (Michele de Marchi), who somehow wins our affection through his guitar-playing (of music composed in this production by De Marchi himself).

Ferdinand Wogerbauer's sets - of birch trees outside that pass from spring to autumn, and of spare, bleak interiors (cluttered at the close, in Vanya's room, with the furniture that props up his existence) - add much to the magic of a production with which this Roman audience quite palpably identified.

n Peter Stein's 'Uncle Vanya' will be at the Edinburgh Festival (King's Theatre), 29-31 August. Booking is now open on: 0131-225 5756