Director Helena Kaut-Howson’s note on the programme says that, as a Russian speaker, her version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya ‘ offers the audience the play viewed through a single lens only’. This, she suggests, is different from the ‘newer English versions from dramatists not fluent in Russian’. A noble ambition indeed, but having seen as many interpretations of Chekhov’s plays in London, I am unable to decipher if Kaut-Howson’s version offers us a truly different view. What she does offer the audience is a fragile and evocative production.
Chekhov’s play takes place in a country house where the arrival of Professor Serebreyakov and his 27 year old wife Yelena throws out the routine of its inhabitants, causing much discord and melancholy and an averted murder. Regret at not living life to the fullest and repressed desires surface but routine, tinged with relief and deep sadness, returns once the professor and his wife leave. To paraphrase one of Led Zeppelin’s songs, ‘what is and what could have been’ sums up this play.Jonathan Strickland’s Uncle Vanya is a tad too hyperactive for me. He comes across across as a slapstick character at times, even when he is angry. And Strickland looks far too old to be Uncle Vanya. In this production Uncle Vanya is 53 but Strickland looks older and even Uncle Vanya’s mother, played by Ellen Sheean, looks younger than her son. The rest of the casting, however, is flawless. Tricia Kelly, who plays Nyanya the housekeeper, stands out for her portrayal of a worn out, ageing housekeeper. Even her body movements, when the play opens, are foreboding. Marianne Oldham is enthralling as the beautiful and bored Yelena. Simon Gregor’s Doctor Astrov injects humour in this otherwise brooding and melancholic play. Hara Yannas’
‘plain looking’ Sonya (the Professor’s daughter by his first marriage) first comes across as being a little too earnest but soon shows us her character’s complexity as the play progresses. Sonya works hard on the farmland and, true to form, her nails are dirty. Some may think this is a minor detail but this echoes the meticulousness with which this production has tackled Chekhov’s play.
The set design, lighting, sound and music are brilliantly deployed to underpin the characters’ moods. The stage with its dining table, an assortment of chairs, a dresser, a samovar and a piano manages to look both sumptuous and dreary. The array of sounds – from the cockerels crowing at a distance to the sound of horses’ hooves to the magnificent storm – are precisely used in this production to set the scene. And Boleslaw Rawski’s original music for this production is powerfully moving.
I was disappointed to see that the theatre was only half full when I saw this play last night. A production as good as this deserves better.
Uncle Vanya is on at the Arcola Theatre until 4 June. Performance time is approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute interval. Box Office: 020 7503 1646 / firstname.lastname@example.org.