Entertainment & Arts

Uncle Vanya: Chekhov fans spoilt for choice

Anna Friel as Yelena in Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville
Image caption Anna Friel as Yelena in Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville

With two Uncle Vanyas playing in London, as well as a new version of The Seagull, Chekhov fans are spoilt for choice. Why is Russia's pre-eminent playwright still so popular in the UK?

Anton Chekhov wrote his greatest plays in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but they are still doing extraordinary business in the 21st.

This year is already notable for several productions of Uncle Vanya - including those at Chichester (with Roger Allam in the title role), in Belfast (with Conleth Hill), and at London's The Print Room (with Iain Glen).

Now there are two more jostling for attention in London's West End.

A period production, with Ken Stott as the titular middle-aged sour grape, has just opened at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Meanwhile, a Russian-language version by Moscow's Vakhtangov theatre company has arrived at the Noel Coward Theatre.

Billed as "Chekhov as you have never seen it before", it boasts a 97-year-old actress, Galina Konovalova and a non-traditional approach.

"There are no cosy armchairs, no table laid for lunch with a lacy tablecloth and hot samovar," its programme notes state according to The Independent.

Chekhov without a samovar? The recent Young Vic production of Three Sisters took an equally radical approach.

Image caption Ken Stott as Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville

Australian director Benedict Andrews set his modern-day story on a mass of interlocking tables. In one unforgettable scene, the cast burst into a sing-along of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Meanwhile Anya Reiss's contemporary adaptation of The Seagull, about to open at the Southwark Playhouse, also promises an overhaul.

The story, in which a successful actress visits her brother's isolated estate, has been relocated to the Isle of Man.

"It's a gentle update," Reiss explains during a break in rehearsals.

"There are laptops and phones and cars to make it make sense in the modern setting, but it's not trying to be smug - so no Twitter references or X Factor.

"By putting it in a modern context, we're showing you every reason that it's still relevant."

Reiss's debut play Spur of the Moment (written when she was 17) opened at the Royal Court in 2010 and was followed a year later by The Acid Test.

Reiss says her adaptation of The Seagull occupies the middle ground between the "tear it apart" approach of the Young Vic's Three Sisters and the "reverential" way Chekhov is usually treated in the UK.

"It feels like the most modern of Chekhov's plays," she says. "It's about art and love and fame - that's the golden three for any play."

A large samovar is very much in evidence in Lindsay Posner's more traditional take on Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville. As well as Ken Stott, its starry cast includes Anna Friel, Samuel West and Laura Carmichael.

"I was drawn to it because I'd reached the right sort of age when I can understand the themes in it in a more complex way than I could have done 20 years ago," admits Posner.

"The themes are very much about people who have reached midlife and are very aware of their mortality."

With his revival following several other Vanyas, why does he think the play is so popular?

Image caption Anya Reiss (L) has adapted The Seagull, which stars Matthew Kelly (R)

"I think it's one of those plays everyone can relate to. It's not a state of the nation play, it's not a political play, overtly.

"It's about misdirected love and marriage, and isolation. There's something in there for everyone in terms of domestic drama."

The British, he points out, have often felt they do Chekhov well.

"Productions are often elegant and elegiac, full of repressed emotion. I've gone more on the front foot with this Vanya, because I feel the Russians were very volatile, which the English are not.

"It's a curious phenomenon how we've appropriated it and made it popular for British culture."

Anna Friel, who plays Yelena, the beautiful young wife of elderly academic Serebryakov, even went to Moscow to talk to Chekhov historians in preparation for her role.

"Chekhov really is a modernist," she says. "He predicted many things early on in his short life, and it touched me very much that this was a man who was writing while he was dying of tuberculosis."

In the spring, Lucy Bailey directed an acclaimed revival of Uncle Vanya in west London's studio theatre The Print Room. Its intimate surroundings allowed her to blur the lines between the audience and the actors.

Bailey, who has been longlisted (along with Benedict Andrews) for best director in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, says Chekhov's understanding of the human predicament makes his work timeless.

"We can't get away from him as a writer because of his emotional intelligence. You're drawn to him again and again - he'll never get dated. Translations date, but Chekhov never will," she says.

How does she account for the enduring power of Uncle Vanya?

"It's not a massive canvas," she asserts. "There are eight very finely drawn characters who play like a piece of chamber music. If one drops out, you haven't got the piece of music.

"We keep returning to Uncle Vanya as a great play - one of the greatest. It just happens that we've all returned to it in the same year."

Uncle Vanya is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 16 February. The Russian-language Uncle Vanya is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 10 November. Anya Reiss's adaptation of The Seagull is at the Southwark Playhouse from 8 November to 1 December.

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