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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
The household routine of Vanya (Colin Stinton), his mother (Lucinda Curtis) and niece Sonya (Catherine Cusack) is disrupted by the extended visit of the retired professor (Philip Voss), Sonya's father who was married to Vanya's late sister, and his new young wife Yelena (Rachael Stirling). The pompous, hypochondriac professor makes a demanding guest, while the attractive but indolent Yelena proves irresistible not only to Vanya but also the family doctor Astrov (Ronan Vibert), beloved by Sonya. Work is neglected in the stagnant atmosphere of self-pity, self-indulgence, unrequited love and unfulfilled potential.
Unfortunately, despite a real sense of intimacy, the tone in Hugh Fraser's underpowered production is so low key that it seems almost as casual as the contemporary clothes worn by the cast. Understated realism is all very well, especially for a play about people whose lives drift along passively and aimlessly, but the underlying feeling of the quiet desperation of wasted lives is missing. With no set, few props and hardly any sound effects, this is minimalist theatre indeed but although it eschews the social context to concentrate on the basic human drama it fails to penetrate the emotional core.
The trouble is that because there is a lack of intensity, the relationships between the characters don't really ring true. Stinton's Vanya is so laid back - bored rather than depressed, facetious rather than bitter - that he doesn't seem to mind too much when he sees Yelena kissing Astrov and when he ultimately loses his temper with the professor and tries to shoot him it merely seems absurdly over the top because nothing has led up to it. Similarly, there's no sign that Cusack's boyish matter-of-fact Sonya aches with passion for the oblivious Astrov, whom Vibert portrays as affably apathetic rather than a highly able world-weary man who still performs his duty but whose idealistic fire is all burned out.
However, Philip Voss gives the professor an almost Shakespearean stature as an elderly man of failing powers aware not only of his own mortality but also wracked by doubt as to whether his career actually made any difference to anything or anyone. His increasing dependence on Yelena is believable but we don't really understand why she married him, though Rachael Stirling's sexy, husky-voiced performance successfully conveys also a deep melancholic realization of having thrown away her chances of happiness - only duty remains.
CurtainUp has reviewed quite a few other productions of this play. For link to these and all about Chekhov, see our Chekhov Backgrounder.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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