A Russian revolution

Maly Drama Theatre is coming to Britain with its startling takes on classic plays. Paul Taylor visits the company in its St Petersburg home
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During a trip earlier this year to visit the celebrated Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, a couple of things brought home to me how mixed a blessing capitalism has been in Russia. One bitterly cold evening, as I walked back to my hotel, I was pursued by a particularly persistent con artist. Drunk-ish, he slurred through a seamless, predatory babble, in which the one English word, "beer", kept cropping up. He was determined to show me the night life, at a price. Deeply peeved at being given the brush-off, he eventually held out a sheaf of dollars towards me. If I'd laid a finger on this "loan", he would presumably have shouted for the police, and - God knows - they may even be in collusion with such scams. It struck me, as I bolted gratefully into the hotel, that this incident was like a satiric version of a standard capitalist procedure. You entice people with credit and then punish them for taking it.

During a trip earlier this year to visit the celebrated Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, a couple of things brought home to me how mixed a blessing capitalism has been in Russia. One bitterly cold evening, as I walked back to my hotel, I was pursued by a particularly persistent con artist. Drunk-ish, he slurred through a seamless, predatory babble, in which the one English word, "beer", kept cropping up. He was determined to show me the night life, at a price. Deeply peeved at being given the brush-off, he eventually held out a sheaf of dollars towards me. If I'd laid a finger on this "loan", he would presumably have shouted for the police, and - God knows - they may even be in collusion with such scams. It struck me, as I bolted gratefully into the hotel, that this incident was like a satiric version of a standard capitalist procedure. You entice people with credit and then punish them for taking it.

The second instance occurred while I was waiting at the Maly Drama Theatre for the arrival of its artistic director, Lev Dodin, whose superbly fresh, funny, and deeply moving production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is just about to arrive in England for a tour which will include stints at the Brighton Festival and at the Barbican for Bite.

I was sitting in the office of Dina Dodina, producer/interpreter/translator and one of the linchpins of the Maly organisation. She received a telephone call and after a short while held the receiver at a slightly comic distance from her ear. The call, I later learnt, was an SOS from the actress who plays the elderly nurse in Vanya. It seems that this performer had not quite absorbed the fact that the production would be travelling for several weeks to England. She had never been outside her native country and the prospect felt a bit daunting.

It's a fact, though, of economic life in post-Communist Russia that, with shrunken government subsidies, a prestigious outfit such as the Maly simply has to tour in order for its standards and its philosophy to survive. Performances abroad bring in more than 50 per cent of its revenue.

Peter Brook has described the Maly, where Dodin has been artistic director since 1983, as "the finest ensemble theatre in Europe". Its work is based on the principle of unending training with a large permanent company comprising several generations who share the same ethos and viewpoint. Obviously, the outlook of the young has changed slightly. In response to a remark from me about the extreme beauty of the youthful female leads in Vanya, Dina Dodina remarks drolly that most of the beautiful young actresses are now in Moscow, because of the opportunities in film and television, but it's possible to do the overnight train journey to St Petersburg in eight hours and catch up on some beauty sleep while doing so.

Because of the company's international commitments, Dodin is no longer able to teach a regular class at the Academy of Theatre Arts: instead the up-and-coming are coached by close associates and a few of these graduate to probationary status with the ensemble. Continuity, of a kind that we in this country can only marvel at, is the key, morally and aesthetically. Pieces remain in the repertoire and grow, their meaning rendered more complex with time.

Take Gaudeamus, a sort of surreal Carry On Sergeant about the Soviet Army Construction Battalion, an outfit that covered a multitude of brutal sins. Based on a novel that was the one work to be banned during the Gorbachev years, this show came to Britain in 1981. It is still being performed, though Dodin recalls the "tense silences" that have interrupted the laughter, and the young people in the theatre "with their heads in their hands" during the war with Chechnya.

When the legendary director arrives, he is direct, humorous, impassioned and without side or pretentiousness. These qualities shine through in his book Journey Without End: Reflections and Memoirs that is soon to be published in Britain by Tantalus Books. We speak through an interpreter who, at one point, after a long and over-involved question from me, equably conveys Dodin's short, cheerful response: "Fuck knows".

Of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, he reveals: "Most of our rehearsal process was devoted to exploring and feeling what had happened in the world of this play before the first line of the text." The back-story here is particularly tangled and painful, for this is one of the great dramas of disillusionment. Forty-seven-year-old Vanya has sacrificed his life managing the estate for Serebryakov, the professor he once revered. But the scales have now fallen from his eyes and the pain is made worse by the arousing presence of the prof's beautiful young wife, Elena.

Dodin is interested in the after as well as the before, on the principle that "you can't stop life at arbitrary fixed points". In his version of Vanya, for example, there's a heart-stopping sequence at the close of Act II. Normally, the proceedings on that stormy night end with the deflating news that Serebryakov has forbidden any piano-playing. Here, though, the production allows time for a lengthier response to this than is customary - and one that is quintessentially Chekhovian.

Ksenia Rappoport, who is astoundingly good as Elena, retaliates to the ban on music by performing an obstinate little percussion piece with a spoon against her husband's stack of medicine bottles. Then she knocks them all over like a thwarted child. Then, tearfully, she sets them upright again. And then, after a brooding pause, she suddenly notices her spouse's galoshes sitting nearby and the sight of them makes her titter helplessly. An example of an actor (in Dodin's words) "understanding a character with her own nervous system", and of the benefits of extending a moment beyond the established outline, Rappoport's performance here demonstrates that when Chekhov's characters swing wildly between desolation and hilarity, it may be two ways of expressing the one underlying thing: despair.

The suppleness of Dodin's vision and its breaking of spatial and temporal boundaries can be seen, too, in the way that - in this uncluttered production where the actors act as scene-shifters - the different acts flow into each other revealingly. Not that the staging goes in for airy-fairy symbolism. The emblematic is rooted in the realistic. For example, there are stacks of hay suspended over the action, a constant reminder that while the household malingers in a state of frustrated erotic yearning, the vital farm work is going to pot. At the close, they descend like a trap. "It's his trick - his mystery," declares Dodin, "that the more specific you make Chekhov, the more universal you make him."

In 1999, the Maly Drama Theatre brought to the Barbican a bewitching, virtually aquatic production of Chekhov's Platonov, set round the bathhouse and pool on a big estate and full of jazz and skinny-dipping. Admirers of that staging will be glad to hear that Sergei Kurishev, who played Platonov, takes the title role again in Uncle Vanya. But a strapping, sexy Vanya? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

According to Dodin, it's important that Vanya is seen to have wasted what could have been real intellectual and erotic opportunities: "Otherwise it's dull - if he's not sexy, he's just a fool to be trying anything on with Elena." To be able to cast as Vanya, the thwarted sex-starved mid-lifer, the actor who, in the same repertoire, is playing Platonov, the young, aimless lady-killer - "that's really the fun," says Dodin, "of having a permanent repertoire". Different facets of the actor's personality can catch the light. The two characters are, in some ways, opposites, but, thanks to the doubling, you can see each of them through the other's perforations.

Often when high-profile productions go on tour, they go stale. It's a phenomenon that is certainly not unknown at the Edinburgh Festival. But this is never the case with the Maly. As people who go to see this Uncle Vanya will discover, the production will seem freshly rehearsed, because, well, it has been. As Dodin declares, with justified pride, "Every performance on tour becomes a premiere".

'Uncle Vanya', Corn Exchange, Brighton (01273 709709) 17 to 21 May; Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) 24 to 28 May

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