We’ve had no shortage of interesting, inventive Chekhov plays staged in London in recent years, and so the company of Moscow’s Mossovet State Academic Theatre have their work cut out to make these Russian-language productions feel vital.
Better known as a film director, Andrei Konchalovsky very much presents Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters as a pair, with the same actors, sets and thematic preoccupations.
But six hours of surtitled angst isn’t an easy sell - and it would be hard to recommend you put in the required effort.
Uncle Vanya is the lighter and more appealing. Pavel Derevyanko’s Vanya is a puckish, foxy little man, flipping between sarcastically amused, gigglingly flirtatious or petulantly cross. Natalya Vdovina’s Elena is similarly high-spirited and capricious: she tickles and teases Vanya one minute, is snappishly sick of him the next.
She’s also coquettish and physical with her aged husband Serebryakov; they’re both mild figures, rather than the manipulative monsters of some interpretations.
Konchalovsky fills the show with laughter, but it frequently strikes a cynical, ironic tone: there is nothing for these people to do but laugh bitterly in the face of fate. Performances are energetic, though Konchalovsky - who also takes set designing credit - stages it in a horribly cluttered fashion, with endless faffing over period props. He’s a monster for putting fussy, distracting bits of business at the back of the stage too.
Konchalovsky’s key intervention is to insert the character of Serebryakov’s first, deceased wife into the play, drifting about dressed in ghostly white. This effectively adds an elegiac tone, but little else. An identical lost mother figure crops up in Three Sisters too, where it feels even more like an attempt to force a distinctive directorial stamp on the work.
Three Sisters starts off larky: Galina Bob is a delicious Irina, skipping and squirming, while Yulia Vysotskaya gets to showcase her considerable talents as slinky, spiky Masha (a sharp contrast to her vulnerable, fraught Sonya in Uncle Vanya). The play proceeds to extinguish the fires of all the sisters, who become trapped in their rural backwater. It should be moving, but as the show becomes increasingly dour, it also becomes increasingly dull.
Both plays feature unusual use of video and photography. In Uncle Vanya, back wall projections provide unnecessarily literal illustrations - tree stumps when Astrov complains about the deforestation; lightning when someone mentions a storm. Stranger are the videos during the interminable scene changes: the production is firmly period in costume and set, yet in Uncle Vanya we’re shown footage of city traffic - a sop to modern relevancy - and in Three Sisters, interviews with the actors on why Chekhov is a genius. The latter at least has the merit of being original, although it slows an already rather long show (and one actress jokingly using it to say hello to her mum is stupendously naff).
On a boringly practical level, the surtitles frequently go out of sync, and are placed at neck-cricking height. Surely not the sort of pain Chekhov wanted to bring to an audience.