by Lyn Gardner
May 21, 2005
The moment when Uncle Vanya discovers Astrov, the doctor, kissing Elena, the woman Vanya loves so completely and hopelessly, is one of the great highlights of Chekhov's comi-tragedy. In Lev Dodin's production for the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, the moment is not just great—it is perfectly sublime. Entering with a bunch of roses, a gift for his beloved, Sergei Kurishev's gentle giant of a Vanya is so appalled, embarrassed and shamed to discover her in a passionate clinch with Astrov that he becomes rooted to the spot and tries to hide his huge body behind his own small, dripping bouquet.
It is this kind of detail, this capturing of the essence of human emotions, that makes the Maly such a great company. You see it in the way Kesenia Rappoport's Elena simultaneously uses her hat as both a shield against the attentions of Vanya and a means of flirting with Astrov. Or the way Igor Ivanov's Professor looks and walks like a bloodless cadaver, and yet clutches desperately at his young wife's breast like a vampire trying to remember how it felt to be alive.
Towards the end, Dodin springs a major surprise that takes your breath away—yet feels completely right. Not only do these people have to find a way to go on in the face of despair, Dodin suggests, but they will have to do so carrying the stain of knowledge that can't be washed away.
Performed in Russian with surtitles, this is a beautiful production that has the stillness and luminosity of a great painting. The placing of the actors is just so: a spatial demonstration of the ties that bind and the gulfs that distance them.
Curiously, however, the production doesn't really come to life until after the interval. It is as if it is too aware of itself and too little aware of the terrible absurdity of life. But stick with it and you will be amply rewarded in a production that asks loudly and urgently, "What is left?" when all hope is destroyed.
Learn more about the production.