2012 has been a notable year for competing productions of the same play. Aside from Shakespeare, whose works often travel in convoy, London has seen three Duchesses of Malfi this year, and now for the second time a brace of Uncle Vanyas square up to each other. In spring Iain Glen’s Vanya at the Print Room jostled against Roger Allam’s at Chichester, but now a mere weekend has separated the openings of two West End productions, one laden with prominent domestic names, the other a one-week visit from Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre.
Expectations were that the contemporary Brits would prove more vibrant than the reverent Russians. In the event, the reverse is true: Lindsay Posner’s production is straightforward and unexceptional, whereas Rimas Tuminas (who is in fact Lithuanian) and his Vakhtangov company play almost as fast and loose with Chekhov as did Benedict Andrews a few weeks ago with Three Sisters at the Young Vic.
Posner’s Vanya is Ken Stott; his brother-in-law Serebryakov, the self-regarding academic, is Paul Freeman; his second wife Yelena, with whom Vanya is infatuated, is Anna Friel; the comparatively magnetic Doctor Astrov is Samuel West; the comic neighbour Telyegin is Mark Hadfield. This list serves also as a succinct description of the production; 95 per cent or so of the characterisation seems to arise directly from the casting, with Posner simply staying out of the way. The only surprise is a slight one, namely that Friel finally has a stage role in which she shows the acting abilities (in terms of subtlety if not, here, of personality type) which she has long since demonstrated on screen.
The Vakhtangov production looks and feels radically different. Put it this way: the British production has a samovar onstage, the Russian one does not. The central element of Adomas Yatsovskis’ set is a large, brutal workbench on which the characters’ emotional dilemmas are, sometimes literally, hammered out. Samuel West’s Astrov may be transparently fibbing when he promises he will never drink again, but his Russian counterpart (two actors alternate in the role) is actually siphoning home brew into a tumbler within five minutes of the same promise. He also, even while harrying Vanya for the return of a stolen bottle of morphia, shoots the protagonist up.
Tuminas’s production runs half an hour longer than Posner’s at three hours, and is played at a noticeably slower pace, but is not at all duller for it. Rather, every character is constantly self-dramatising his or her assorted distresses. Vladimir Simonov’s Serebryakov is so vigorous in his nocturnal illness that he resembles the late madcap Kenneth Mars. The departure of all visitors in the fourth and final act is what finally drains off this histrionic energy, leaving Sergey Makovetsky’s Vanya (along with the injection) so inert that he is posed and moved by Sonya like a mannequin.
Posner’s is a perfectly serviceable entry-level Vanya with a generous handful of big-name “scalps”, but anyone either familiar with the play or of an adventurous bent would be far better served by catching the Muscovites on their too-brief visit.