It’s always a delight to get your teeth into a meaty chunk of Chekhov, and I wasn’t that certain if I’d ever seen a production of Uncle Vanya before. If I have, it was a jolly long time ago. Mrs Chrisparkle was pretty sure she had never seen it. So, with a rather exciting looking cast it was an obvious choice for one of our three nights in London at the beginning of January.
Written as the 1800s turned into the 1900s, the play is chock-full of the themes you would expect to find in your average Chekhov. Unrequited love, people growing old tragically alone, the pompous pretensions of the middle classes, selfish older people, too much vodka and forestry. Never forget the forestry. Remember the Cherry Orchard, which ends with the trees being chopped down, representing the end of the old order? In Uncle Vanya you have the woefully underachieved Doctor Astrov, who likes to spend his time tending the forests, which activity is obviously attractive to the downtrodden Sonya, who admires and values his hard work. Today you would guess they would both work for the Forestry Commission. The forests that surround the Serebryakov estate depict life – but still, dull, fruitless, dark, never changing life. The kind of life that bored, sad Yelena has married into; she who is a beacon of light for both the doctor and the useless eponymous uncle (actually brother-in-law as far as Yelena is concerned), but a light neither of them will ever get to see by.
No one gets a happy ending but nevertheless it’s not a depressing evening. It’s a fascinating play that gives you loads to think about on the way home, and its flashes of humour are very believable and provide dramatic highlights in this production. It’s thoughtfully and gently directed by Lindsay Posner with no wacky modern ideas of souping it up. Christopher Oram’s sets are very realistic and claustrophobic, but they take a helluva long time to shift from Acts 1 to 2 and 3 to 4, to the detriment of the dramatic tension on stage, which begins to ebb away as a slight impatience for the next scene arises. If the slow scene changes are a subtle way of telling us that life in 19th century Russia moves at a snail’s pace, it doesn’t work.
One other aspect of the general design that I wasn’t entirely happy with, is that there are a number of moments when a character either observes something without other characters noticing, for example Vanya catching Astrov and Yelena in an embrace, or when someone talks about another character out of their earshot, as when Vanya criticises his brother. The Vaudeville stage isn’t that wide, and with the sets as detailed as they are, it is fairly impossible to provide enough visible space between the onlookers and the others to give a credible impression that one bunch of actors can’t see what’s going on at the other end of the stage. Yes I know this is one of those theatrical things where you have to suspend belief, but actually I found it quite hard to suspend it to that extent.
Ken Stott is a brilliant Vanya. He’s gruff and blustery, passionate and outspoken, but it’s easy to see that’s mainly a front and that deep down he’s a pretty inadequate human being. He could have done something with his life – maybe – his criticising mother (a suitably stern and grumpy Anna Carteret) certainly thinks so; but then he’s 53 and she still doesn’t treat him as an adult, so I don’t suppose he cares what she thinks. He is equally critical of Serebryakov, who has enjoyed some distant success, and Ken Stott plays Vanya’s dismissiveness of his brother’s achievements with a very credible glee. The scene where Vanya shoots his brother is a delight; both Mr Stott and Paul Freeman as the hideously self-obsessed Serebryakov react hilariously to the outcome.
Two other scenes that worked really well – and brought out the humour in the sadness – were the encounter between Astrov (Samuel West giving a great performance of charming inanity) and Yelena (Anna Friel giving equal weight to the character’s mischievousness and sense of total defeat) when she feigns interest in the doctor’s map collection in order to get his attention, ostensibly to find out if he fancies Sonya. He goes all anorakky about it and she fails to convince any interest in the dull old maps whatsoever; Mrs C and I both recognised some of the worst defects in our own personalities there, just as I expect millions of people have done for the last 114 years. I also very much liked the scene in Act Four where Vanya and the Doctor are sitting side by side on Vanya’s bed and he can no longer control his great sadness at the way life has turned out. It was a very moving conversation, played to perfection by Messrs Stott and West.
Laura Carmichael plays the hopeless Sonya with quiet dignity and gives a very convincing performance of someone who clings on to the tiniest hope even though she knows it’s absolutely fatuous. June Watson’s Marina is a kindly and strong old Chekhovian retainer and the always reliable Mark Hadfield brings out both the humour and the weakness of the wretched old landowner Telyegin.
All in all it’s a very satisfying and straightforward presentation of a thought provoking and still relevant play. Definitely recommended.