by Jeremy Kingston
May 19, 2005
In Communist times those theatre companies that visited us from Eastern Europe, and especially from Soviet Russia, amazed audiences by seeming to re-create real life upon the stage. To say that an actor inhabits his role is generally no more than a lazy cliche but here were actors whose every move, glance and word lured one to imagine that this could be the actual Olga, the actual Trigorin or whoever—in part, of course, because they had probably been playing the same role since the fall of the Tsars.
Leningrad's Maly Theatre is now the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, and while the illusions of conviction are as profound as ever (in a production scarcely a year old), its eminent and admirable director, Lev Dodin, takes pains to indicate that this is a show. The cast themselves bring on the simple chairs, plain table and samovar to furnish the starkly empty stage, above which loom three large haystacks, as though the action is to take place in a barn.
But this is more than an extravagant way of indicating that we are in the country. Just as on the seashore stones are upturned to see what lives beneath, here we are to see life in the dull depths of rural Russia. At the end of the play the stacks descend, trapping Vanya, Sonya and the others once more in the deadening routine of country existence.
However futile their lives have been—and the discovery of this is the bitterly comic engine driving the play—the appalled stare that Sergei Kurishev's Vanya turns on us in the closing moment indi¬cates both horror at a life exhausted in a worthless cause and the terror of learning that, like some opium addict, he has forfeited the will to change.
Dodin's direction is strong on the looks characters direct at one another. The very young Sonya of Elena Kalinina, as desperate for rapture as a postulant nun, devours with her eyes every step taken away from her by Piotr Semak's Astrov. And he gazes—as does Vanya—almost with disbelief, at the listless beauty of Ksenia Rappoport's Elena.
Dodin also fills gaps in the dialogue with some revelatory actions, valuable when, for example, Elena vents her frustration by overturning her old husband's tray of medicine bottles. But doubtfully useful when he has the entire company walk in on Elena passionately kissing Astrov. This alters and even contradicts the sense of succeeding lines, when Astrov is urged (by the husband) to finish what he has begun.
This one reservation apart, the Brighton Festival has again imported an absorbing and excellent example of continental theatre.
Learn more about the production.