Respected film and theatre director Andrei Konchalovksy describes the repertoire staging of his 2009 Uncle Vanya together with Three Sisters as “basically one production of two plays” by the Mossovet State Academic Theatre of Moscow, which is visiting London for a fortnight. Both presentations, in Russian with English surtitles, are periodically “haunted” by a woman in white gliding across the stage, as if to embody the past era for which characters yearn and the imminent passing of their own age.
Many of the performers double, most notably Pavel Derevyanko, who plays the frustrated Vanya (who here looks very much like Chekhov himself) and the idealistic, innocent Baron in Three Sisters. Yulia Vysotskaya transforms from the diffident Sonya in Uncle Vanya to the mercurial Masha in Three Sisters. And, of course, this being Chekhov, both pieces portray unimportant, middle-class Russians going nowhere, and do so with a consummate blend of comedy and poignancy.
The performance style is not what we think of as Chekhovian naturalism. There is not a lot of underplaying on show here, but it makes a deeper impression for its contrast with the broader, graphic style which dominates. Vanya even takes a gratuitous pratfall in Act One, long before the onset of drunkenness might give him an excuse.
But nor does the company stint one iota on the attention to detail characteristic of so many Russian productions. In Three Sisters, the spinning top given to Irina in Act One crops up as a forgotten relic in Act Three, three years or so later. Early in Vanya a servant lights a samovar by using pine cones for fuel and a concertina’d old riding boot as a bellows. The combination of dramatic flair with practical authenticity proves seductive, and offers enough insight to render the slideshows and video extracts projected during scene changes unnecessary.
There is perhaps a little less freshness in Three Sisters (it’s also half an hour longer at three and a quarter hours) and, heretical though it may seem, one can actually have too much Chekhov at one sitting. Seeing both shows on the same day isn’t recommended, but a visit to either one is. To put it bluntly, these Russians simply own Chekhov.