Three and a half hours of exquisite boredom


Robert Butler
Saturday 31 August 1996 23:02

The German director Peter Stein's magnificent Italian production of Uncle Vanya, which reaches Edinburgh after Moscow, Rome and Parma, opens with the beleaguered doctor, Astrov (Remo Girone), walking slowly round the sunlit garden. A couple of minutes pass. As we wait, we hear enough sound effects to fill a natural history programme. When he does speak, it's a series of murmurs to the children's nanny, Marina (Bianca Sollazzo), who sits knitting by the samovar. By now we too are saturated with temperature, season, mood and place. Stein has built his production round Chekhov's own subtitle: Scenes From Country Life. His Vanya is long and full of longing.

Over the next three and a half hours, boredom and lethargy are mined exhaustively. Maddalena Crippa plays the beautifully narcoleptic Helena as an extravagant and divided figure. When she yawns she does so with the energy of someone pushing weights. Speech is only one element in Stein's highly atmospheric stage design. During pauses we are aware of the presence of weather, wildlife and domestic animals. The Italian cast are masters of shrugs, glances and weary flourishes.

Visually, as well as aurally, Stein's Vanya has the texture of a Dutch interior (complete with vistas). Little bits of stage business provide graphic insights. When Astrov speaks of the distant light at the end of the forest he moves the candle down the long dining table: just out of reach. Astrov walks up close to Sonya (an emotionally turbulent Elisabetta Pozzi) and she stiffens with excitement before discovering that he is only collecting the brandy bottle next to her.

When the burly Professor, Serebryakov (Lino Troisi) announces he wants to sell the estate, the reactions of each character are superbly delineated. Vanya faints from the shock. Marina keeps her eyes fixed on her knitting. Helena moves round the bleached walls with the furtiveness of a rounders player stealing a base. The insect-like figure of the mother (Tania Rocchetta), who can be heard in the first act cutting the pages of a new pamphlet, sits on the sofa with implacable resolve. As Vanya wags his fingers at the professor he looks as if he is already pointing a gun. When he does shoot the professor (and misses) the vase filled with the autumn roses shatters, and the professor stands rooted to the spot, half-believing he is dead.

Stein's production has subtle depth and sly allusiveness. Three sets of doors lead into Vanya's room: the final act is a series of exits. As Vanya, the bedraggled Roberto Herlitzka sits up against the prison-like bars of the bedstead and wonders why he hasn't been arrested. Astrov and Helena have a final impulsive kiss. Then they depart. The doors are closed, leaving the characters to the scratching of pens, the click-clack of the abacus and the crickets outside. When no other lights are on except for the candles and lamps, a stage hand extinguishes each one. Cue standing ovation. As we left the theatre, the Festival's firework display lit up the sky. It seemed appropriate.

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