Corn Exchange, Brighton
Opened 17 May, 2005

Towards the end of Act Two of Lev Dodin's production, Elena and her stepdaughter Sonya have reached a rapprochement, and Elena, a little drunk, feels like playing the piano. Actress Ksenia Rappoport begins fingering an imaginary keyboard on the table. When Sonya returns with the news that the pompous Serebryakov forbids actual playing, Elena clinks her wine-glass in an ironic toast against one of her husband's array of medicine bottles; then, emboldened, she tries to play the "Blue Danube" waltz on the whole pharmacy. Suddenly stricken by remorse, she lovingly strokes one of Serebryakov's galoshes; then, regaining sight of the absurdity, puts them on and makes a shuffling, ambivalent exit, leaving Sonya (Elena Kalinina) mutely and impassively to straighten out the tray of bottles. Lights; interval.

I recount these couple of minutes' business in such detail because they serve as a microcosm of what Dodin and his Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg achieve with Chekhov's play. Without melodrama, they precisely lay out its emotional territory. Even the relative positions of groups of characters on the stage in supposedly casual conversation shows us their relationships to and feelings for one another; the surface events, meanwhile, simply present the personal, family and financial banalities of Chekhovian landed-but-shabby nobodies. As Vanya himself, Sergei Kurishev is just such a nonentity. Dodin, working in concert with Chekhov's script, cannily prevents us from feeling all that much for Vanya, because the character is such an ineffectual whinger; his laments for what he could have done with his life sound as trite to us as the three sisters' nostalgia for Moscow in Chekhov's next play.

The production is all very Russian, of course, playing out to the three-hour mark with a kind of vodka sluggishness. This pacing, too, shows us the play's emotions in their natural register without calling either for implausible declamation or conspicuous underplaying. The stage is kept virtually bare, apart from simple chairs and tables moved on and off by the cast; the real onstage architecture is built from the currents between the people there. The Maly are no strangers to Britain, and routinely attract swarms of superlatives on their visits here. You can see why. After playing as part of the Brighton Festival, the show moves to the Barbican in London for next week only.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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