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4 / 5 stars4 out of 5 stars.    
Barbican, London
A gifted cast from Moscow’s Theatre of Nations brings Soviet-era stories of folly and obsession to enchanting life

Iconfess to knowing little of Vasily Shukshin (1929-74) who, apart from being a film director and actor, wrote stories of Siberian village life in the Soviet era. Eight of his tales (performed in Russian with English surtitles) are now being presented by Moscow’s Theatre of Nations and I found them utterly enchanting. Comparisons have been made with Chekhov, but I was more often reminded of Nikolai Gogol’s vivid realism and fascination with human folly.

Like Gogol’s The Overcoat, many of the stories are about an ungovernable obsession. In one a villager spends 65 roubles – half the price of a motor scooter – on buying a pair of stylish leather boots for his wife only to find they don’t fit her. In another, a worker blows the family savings on a microscope and is forever haunted by the presence of germs and bugs. But the most moving story, in its mixture of sadness and gaiety, is the final one in which a jailbird pointlessly escapes prison with only two weeks of his sentence left, purely to return to his native village: the aching need for a sight of a beloved family and place is beautifully caught.

Wisely the Latvian director, Alvis Hermanis, makes no attempt to swathe the tales in peasant earthiness. The stage is dominated by a long wooden bench and blown-up photographs of contemporary villagers, while the eight-strong cast sport modern Muscovite clothes. That creates a lively tension between the stories’ evocation of Soviet life and today’s world, and the only frustration lies in the fact that the actors are not identified by their roles.

It is, however, possible to pick out Evgeny Mironov, artistic director of the Theatre of Nations, who plays a number of Shukshin’s wise fools with astonishing versatility. One moment he is a doting cuckold still dreaming of his late wife, the next a social parasite who expresses his despair through ceaseless dancing. But the whole company is vivaciously gifted and if they bring the same elan to Chekhov’s Ivanov later in the week, it should be eminently worth catching.

• At the Barbican, London, until 9 October.

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