Aydin Talıbzadeh*

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Chiten theatre of Japan, directed by Motoi Miura. Seen at the M.A.P. (Music Art Performance) Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan, November 5-11, 2018.

Chiten theatre from Japan performed a spectacle of genius based on A. P. Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the M.A.P festival in Baku. I could never read, imagine or interpret Chekhov in such a way, and not only me. For this, you should have been born Japanese. I am sure that Russian theatre critics will see this performance as a nightmare and cross themselves, clinging to Chekhov’s feet. Most of them will never agree with me, because everything here is quite extraordinary, original and Japanese. At first sight, you can barely recognize Anton Pavlovich. However, it quickly becomes clear that the Japanese have reached to the nerves of Chekhov’s play by “peeling the words off,” “undressing” them, taking off their “skin.” They have prepared a play from these nerves and have created a completely new visual text.

Uncle Vanya (Kogi Ogawara) on the floor, Sonya (Satoko Abe) standing on the piano, Serebryakov (Yohei Kobayashi) leaning on the piano, Jelena (Shie Kubota) sitting. Photo: Faxriyya Mammadova

Uncle Vanya and Sonya spend most of their time on a grand piano, and sometimes, Serebryakov climbs on to the piano as well. There are rows of dried grass on the piano’s surface and a bunch of wires, decorated with small sparkling stones like a chandelier, hangs above. Director Motoi Miura lets Yelena Andreyevna go on the piano only when she interferes with Sonya’s love affairs. This is somehow a forbidden space for Astrov as well, since he is a vagabond and observer and may only lean his elbows on the piano. Only Sonya stays there during the whole life cycle of the spectacle, not leaving her place, as if pinned to one point and speaking, speaking, speaking all the time. It is strange, isn’t it? However, in reality everything is quite simple.

Sonya (Satoko Abe) prevails on her piano while others recline. Photo: Faxriyya Mammadova

The piano symbolizes Uncle Vanya’s and Sonya’s estate, their inherited property. Being, staying, lying there means for them living, living and living, it means the last shelter, it means daily living, and it means enduring with all the pains in one’s heart. Because these two characters have nothing else and no joy in life except the estate: they have lost in love, have not been married, have no specific occupation. Sonya and Vanya will cling on to the estate by their fingertips and will not give it away to anyone. Although Serebryakov puts his forehead on the ground and raises his legs twice during the performance (a balancing act in a yoga position), there is no place for him on this estate, nor for Yelena Andreyevna, nor for Astrov, or the others.

According to Motoi Miura’s interpretation, people who cannot become Sonja’s bosom friends and cannot get on well with this old maid are politely kicked away from the piano.

The principal character of Chiten’s Uncle Vanya is certainly not Vanya, but Sonya. But why is she called Sonya, this character named Sofia Serebryakova? Does the nickname hint at Sofia’s extreme sleepiness (Sonya means sleeping woman in Russian)? Possibly, yes! Indeed, Old Russian landowners were keen on sleeping in their estates for a long time. Why shouldn’t Sonya be keen on sleeping? Maybe this is why Miura presents Sonya like an “unmoving princess,” a character from Kabuki?

Uncle Vanya (Kogi Ogawara) and Sonya (Satoko Abe) on the piano, Astrov (Dai Ishida) at the back in Sonya’s shadow. Photo: Faxriyya Mammadova

The play is entirely based on the ambitions and unrealized wishes of the old maid Sonya: she rises over the piano like a furious goddess, as if controlling the other characters. Miura has interpreted Sonya as a real confidential moderator, the inner power of the play. Vanya is a performer who endures the old maid’s caprices. Miura’s great discovery in the Chekhov tradition is to be the first to draw attention to the main mover of the events—Sonya—and make her the leading character.

Miura’s interpretation is completely new. Infact, Chekhov named his play Uncle Vanya according to Sonya’s language, reflecting the way she speaks. It is on purpose that at the end of Miura’s spectacle Sonya kicks Uncle Vanya, who is lying on the piano leaning on his elbows, with all her force. This is her ambition, her accusation, her peculiar revenge. Questions such as “Why should Uncle Vanya fall in love with Yelena, why should Astrov love Yelena but not me?” might make Sonya think and become her psychological problem. Astrov has an excuse, but Vanya does not. He has declared his love to a woman who is married to his late sister’s husband—Serebryakov—one who has deprived Sonya of Astrov, destroyed her hopes, hence Vanya became an “enemy” when he fell in love with Yelena Andreyevna!

Astrov (Dai Ishida) in the centre. Photo: Faxriyya Mammadova

This is uncle Vanya’s mistake, his betrayal of his gracious, caring niece; this is brutish behaviour. For a good reason, Sonya is offended, and even experiences a mental shock. Sonya is right, and director Miura sides with her. I, for one, never encountered such an interpretation of the relationship between Vanya and Sonya.

As already stated, the performance takes place on a grand piano. Why particularly a grand piano? Because Miura is illustrating not only the text, but also the context of the play in the performance space. He establishes an intertextual relation with Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov’s Unfinished piece for mechanical piano (1977). In other words, Miura directly embodies the associative character of Mikhalkov’s film by replacing the piano with a grand piano, which represents a centre of nervous energies for Chekhov’s characters. Shouldn’t the grand piano be considered the musical instrument with the most stretched “nerves”?Shouldn’t its multiple wires be interpreted as the “nerves” of the world of music? Miura somehow opens “the lid” of Chekhov’s characters and finds out instantly that all they have exposed nerves.

Serebryakov (Yohei Kobayashi, left) and Jelena (Shie Kubota) on the floor, Sonya (Satoko Abe) and Vanya (Kogi Ogawara) on the piano. Photo: Faxriyya Mammadova

That is why characters entering the performance space scream at physical contact with each other, as if in the grip of an electric shock. They are not bodies; they are injured creatures consisting solely of nerves. For this very reason Chekhov’s characters cannot communicate, nor establish a dialogue between themselves, but turn dialogues into monologues by screaming. Every effort to communicate, every slight physical contact becomes a roar of pain. Only one character, the bankrupt landowner Ilya Ilich Telegin, has no nerves, so Miura replaces him with a black loudspeaker and places this “drowsy” speaker by the side of the grand piano: there is no need for Telegin, the strumming of his guitar is enough, because according to Motoi Miura Telegin is the one who turns this terrible anger into sad songs.

Astrov (Dai Ishida) on the left. Photo: Faxriyya Mammadova

The actors wear thin white clothes: Astrov stands out for his intellectual look and canotier hat, Voynitsky for his sleeveless jumper resembling an accountant and Serebryakov for his grey felt hat in the form of a skullcap resembling a real estate broker. Such a specific and loveless, somewhat cruel, somewhat physical, somewhat painful life: even so painful that some could say: “I began to hate Chekhov.” Myself, I consider Uncle Vanya the crowning beauty of the M.A.P. festival. 

*Aydin Talibzadeh (October 5, 1958) is theatre critic, researcher, writer and professor of Azerbaijan State Culture and Art University. Member of international institutions and organizations such as IFTR, UNIMA, ASSITEJ. Author of books (in Azerbaijany) The Master and the Mirror, Mehdi’s Mystery or the Concept of Hamletizm in Art, Thousand Masks and I, The Theatrical Frescos, The History of the East Theatre, The Theatre and Theatrics in the Culture of Islam, and more than 500 articles published worldwide. He is also author of several novels, including The Model of the Butterfly 102, Abuhyub, and plays, such as Tubinot, Pokémon, The Aunt, An Apple.

Copyright © 2019 Aydin Talibzadeh
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Uncle Vanya’s Roars on the Grand Piano