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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?