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A CurtainUp London Review
Somehow Uncle Vanya is a play that grows on one, with each successive production it becomes more affective, offering different nuances and lights of imagination. Peter Hall has based this Vanya on the comedy which accentuates the tragedy when it comes into bitter relief. The asides from the players are spoken directly to the audience, just as a character reveals the inner thoughts that he or she can only express to strangers. Although we are laughing at the irony, we are still affected by the frustration, the boredom, the futility of this play which Chekhov subtitled Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts.
Nicholas Le Prevost is an attractive , immensely likeable Vanya, full of regret for a life wasted in futile gestures and alcohol, whether giving up his inheritance for his sister and her child or keeping the estate going so that Serebryakov (Ronald Pickup) can be supported as an academic in the city. He maybe less hapless than some Vanyas but he's very empathetic. His niece Sonya (Loo Brealey) looks weary with the cares of the estate which have fallen to her. The contrast between Sonya and the beautiful, but indolent Yelena (Michelle Dockery) is hard to stomach. The difficult truth is that Astrov (Neil Pearson) can't return Sonya's feelings. The Professor makes a much anticipated entrance and we expect to think badly of him. After all Marina the nanny (Antonia Pemberton) has told us what an inconsiderate guest he is keeping the samovar on the boil all day awaiting his rising and Vanya later echoes her words with complaints of his own.
Ronald Pickup's Serebryakov is a very old man, making his decision to sell the estate the selfishness of old age rather than mere thoughtlessness. As he puts it, "Since I've grown old, I've become repellent, even to myself." (Faith Brook's Maria, Vanya's mother, too reminds of the insensitivity of old age and the damage of favouritism.) But what the professor does is to bring with him the beautiful but bored Yelena (Michelle Dockery). She has lovely dark eyes and remarkably arched eyebrows, film star looks, reminding me of Ava Gardner with her luxuriant black hair gracefully caught up in an ornate style. Miss Dockery acts with her raised eyebrows but her penetrating dark eyes are full of ennui. "It's September already, " she says, "How are we going to get through the winter?" Yelena's impact is to disrupt the status quo, to remind Vanya and Astrov of what they do not have and Sonya of what she can never be. Astrov describes Yelena in this translation as "a beautiful, fluffy little weasel." Neil Pearson's Astrov is weary too despite his enthusiasms as he self medicates with alcohol.
I wonder whether if Chekhov had been born in another era whether his plays would have been so affecting, set as they are at the end of one outmoded economic system which needs to make way for another in the next couple of decades. While Astrov the doctor would seem to represent the playwright's concerns for society, this 1999 translation from Stephen Mulrine gives him a speech on growing trees and preventing climate change which I found anachronistic.
The set is like The Rose theatre decor— wooden floors and ash grey painted wooden chairs, soft and pretty but dominated by a tree with coppery leaves to remind us that we are in the country. A map of Africa dominates the easel in the closing scenes, maybe as a representation of where the Serebryakovs may find a future as they talk about going to Harcourt.
In the quiet tragedy of the final scene, we are treated to a succession of those left behind in turn entering and saying as if for the first time, "They've gone" the sole topic of conversation in this country house with the departure of the interesting Yelena. We laugh at the repetition but also feel the loss. And even as Vanya and Telegin and Sonya tell us that they can't stand it anymore, they each fling their hands up in the air making comedy out of despair.
There were a few concerns on opening night with some of the sightlines in the new 900 seat theatre but I could hear every word. The audience are seated on three levels and curve round towards the playing area, maybe occupying three quarters of the twelve sided area. Patrons who bring their own cushions can sit on the floor in front of the stalls to see the plays. I am thrilled that the seats at The Rose have some padding, plenty of leg room and are much more comfortable than authentic wooden benches.
Editor's Note: For more about Chekhov and links to other reviews of his plays, including other Uncle Vanyas, see our Chekhov backgrounder
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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