Uncle Vanya, Corn Exchange, Brighton

Beautifully simple. But not simply beautiful
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The Independent Culture

An authentic Russian production of one of Chekhov's great tragicomedies is a thrilling prospect for British theatre-goers, especially when it is being brought to our doorsteps by the world-renowned Maly ensemble. And this staging of Uncle Vanya certainly begins startlingly and refreshingly.

An authentic Russian production of one of Chekhov's great tragicomedies is a thrilling prospect for British theatre-goers, especially when it is being brought to our doorsteps by the world-renowned Maly ensemble. And this staging of Uncle Vanya certainly begins startlingly and refreshingly.

The vintage costumes are as you might expect - mainly pale linen - but they are beautifully simple, as are the furnishings. Some scenes consist of nothing but a scattering of cane chairs, so you can see the roots of the production in a rehearsal studio. That makes the acting feel particularly vibrant. This is no museum piece. Indeed, the company's director, Lev Dodin, is being deliberately experimental. He has these "Scenes From Country Life In Four Acts" start with the lights up in the auditorium, so that Chekhov's household of love-smitten and sorely frustrated characters drift onto the stage, looking out at us as we gaze back at them. Their soliloquies are addressed directly to the audience as well. Thus the play, quite literally, speaks to us. Dodin is simultaneously acknowledging the illusion-breaking theatrical references in the dialogue - including pompous old Professor Serbryakov's allusion to Gogol's The Government Inspector, and his beautiful wife Elena's weary description of herself as one of life's "minor characters".

The two young actresses in this production are particularly outstanding. Ksenia Rappoport is an extraordinary, sympathetic Elena, with not just cool languid magnetism, but flashes of girlish vitality and humour. She is particularly brilliant at playing with the few props on stage. When her testy, invalid husband forbids her to play the piano in the small hours, she takes a spoon and rattles out a tune on his medicine bottles, laughing quietly with a kind of wild desperation. Meanwhile, Elena Kalinina's Sonya - the professor's daughter who is hopelessly besotted with the local doctor - is touchingly ambiguous in her affection, still grabbing his arm eagerly like a little girl. Sonya's normally stoical final speech - "We shall rest! We shall rest!" - is spoken here with searing rage and grief.

Some of the male leads are less electrifying. Igor Ivanov's crusty Serebrykov is a small but potently suffocating presence, strutting around like a supercilious undertaker all in black. However, after Simon Russell Beale's feverously intelligent Vanya in Sam Mendes' Donmar production, Sergei Kurishev appears stolid in the title role. He is a depressed, lumbering bear of a man, and the comedy doesn't always come across either. This may have been because of the imperfect timing of the English surtitles, but I was ultimately disappointed by this production.

Touring to 18 June. 0870 111 200

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