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Uncle Vanya, Noel Coward Theatre, London


The coincidence looks as if it might have been contrived by some ironic wag. A mere three days after the opening of Lindsay Posner's revival of Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville, the West End now plays host to this wildly alternative approach to the same play by Rimas Tuminas and the Moscow-based Vakhtangov company.

The contrast of styles could scarcely be more striking. The English production is solidly traditional, respectful, at times subtle, but also a tad constipated in its emotional reserve and its heavy, literal-minded, cramping sets. The Russian production goes for broke in the opposite direction.  There's a blackly ebullient abandon to their extraordinary account of Chekhov's great tragicomedy of wasted potential and blighted dreams. Out go the samovars, the birch trees and the Stanislavkian realism. In come a kind of Expressionist slapstick that's calculated to show how listless despair and manic hilarity can be flip-sides of the same coin and a sparsely junky non-naturalistic design. 

The thwarted energies of the characters erupt in startling outbursts such as when Sergey Makovetsky's crumpled, dumpy Vanya shakes off a fit of the blues by taking Maria Berdinskikh's waif-like but determined Sonya for a mad, victory-saluting ride round the stage on an iron plough.  Mood swings are underlined by sardonically bathetic shifts of register in Faustas Latenas's continuous brooding-to-puckish musical soundtrack.

Drinking is an overly decorous business in the concurrent English production, but here hooch is unceremoniously siphoned off from a great jar by Vladimir Vvdovichenkov's strapping, charismatically volatile Dr Astrov, a figure much given to forcibly re-positioning the other folk, including (still upright in her chair) the aged, battily eccentric nanny portrayed by the remarkable 97 year old actress, Galina Konovalova.

Not all of it works. The habit, say, of having the characters declaim to the audience rather than speak to each other is not conducive to the eliciting of nuances. But Anna Dubrovskaya, rolling a provocative silver hoop between suitors, is a seductively sultry and statuesque Elena who can also descend with aplomb to erotic broad farce. And Vladimir Simonov's hilarious Professor is so imperturbable in his sense of superiority to Vanya that he even puffs out his chest and invites the bosh gun shots. When Benedict Andrews tried something along similar lines with Three Sisters at the Young Vic recently, the result struck me as forced and lacking in inner drive. This Uncle Vanya by contrast feels as if it pouring from the collective soul of the company. 

To Nov 10; 0844 4825140