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From Russia with hope

Rachel Halliburton previews a radical Uncle Vanya coming to London.

In 2008, the Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas received a backstage visit from Vladimir Putin. The play was a 19th-century comedy, Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboyedov, and had been given a standing ovation by the Moscow audience. The president was less effusive. “Why did you show the hero crying at the beginning?” he asked, in remarks broadcast on state TV. “One gets the impression of him as a weak person. But he’s a strong man.”

What would Putin think of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s great man of inaction? So far he hasn’t delivered his verdict on Tuminas’s latest production. But if you were looking for credentials for bravery, the Lithuanian’s radical, expressionistic vision takes liberties with Chekhov’s text that ditch the simmering discontent among the dachas for a blackly comic interpretation. Normally in Vanya, you are slowly ambushed by the sense of a world out of kilter but here it erupts right from the start.

Chekhov said theatre should “show life and men as they are, and not as they would look if you put them on stilts”. Yet Tuminas is not the only director to disagree in London this autumn – the Young Vic has put on a subversion of his Three Sisters, complete with a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The Vakhtangov Theatre’s Vanya – coming soon to the West End – detonates its ammunition differently. It’s like watching Tarkovsky on nitrous oxide – a succession of carefully constructed poetic images, pervaded by wry slapstick.

I went to watch it in Moscow earlier this year and was struck by two of the tableaux. When the play’s object of desire, Yelena, arrives on stage the action freezes as she poses like a femme fatale on a catwalk. Later, when Astrov and Vanya are drowning their existential sorrows, they drink out of a vast, bulbous flagon from which they need to extract the wine by inhaling on a rubber tube – a routine that makes them look like clowns and the liquid like urine. Vanya is played by the Russian film star Sergey Makovetsky – here he evokes a character who goes from crumpled dishcloth to rueful philosophical fool. While the production’s individual images seem comic and extreme, together they create an elegiac sense of a universe where no one has control over their fate. When the doctor, Astrov, howls to the moon, it’s a brilliant evocation of the political and psychological void facing these characters.

Tuminas has declared that his distinctive approach partly derives from seeing Chekhov as a contemporary writer. First time round, Chekhov was writing during a time of political stasis, shortly after the failure of Alexander II’s reforms adequately to tackle corruption and allow peasants to escape serfdom by buying land from the aristocracy. I put it to Tuminas that perhaps his writing resonates so strongly now because Russia is facing a different kind of political stasis, as Putin’s third term as president exposes the sham of its democracy and the powerlessness of its voters.

Maybe mindful of another backstage visit, he protests that “Russia is striving for democracy but it’s impossible right now to govern it with the principles of democracy”. In defence of Putin he makes a couple of jokey remarks about the similarities between being criticised as a politician and being criticised as a director. But interestingly he also invokes the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, champion of political freedom in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution: “A country is defined not by its geography, not by its language, but by its hope.”

We are talking a week after demonstrations against Putin’s legislation introducing harsh penalties for protesters and shortly before the trial of Pussy Riot. Hope seems in short supply. The probability is that if Chekhov truly were a contemporary writer, he probably would not be receiving such a rapturous reception in Russia. As it is, this startling production represents one of the more fruitful exchanges between Moscow and London this year.

“Uncle Vanya” (in Russian) plays at the Noel Coward Theatre from 5-10 November

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide