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A CurtainUp London Review
It is this context which gives Chekhov such wide reaching powers of political foresight as he sees Russia struggle economically, deprived of the free labour of serfdom. It is the role of the overworked doctor, Astrov, here heroically played by an impassioned William Houston, to show us what is happening ecologically to his homeland.
Mike Poulton’s new version, besides its environmental emphasis, has a naturalness of speech so that characters disarmingly tell each other what they are really thinking. “There’s no longer any shape to my life, ” says the doctor with Houston’s splendid resonating voice. Both Astrov and Vanya (Iain Glen) are very likeable as Chekhov’s gentle comedy is allowed to surface so that they both are realistic about their situation, yet powerless to change anything. Glen delights as Vanya acidly listing off the professor’s many flaws. Both Astrov and Vanya hark back to a day when they might have led different lives. Mike Poulton also allows everyone to drown their sorrows in drink, even Yelena knocks back shots of spirits.
David Yelland has a lot of fun with Serebryakov, the insufferably pompous, self pitying and selfish professor whom Vanya and Sonya (Charlotte Emmerson) slave to support in relative luxury. The break to the household’s routine with the professor keeping odd hours and demanding that a servant makes him tea in the small hours of the morning contrasts the self centred behaviour of the academic with the self sacrificing Vanya. Sonia stomps in workmen’s boots while the professor wears silk. Caroline Blakiston as the mother is magnificent in a Russian curved headdress as she stares, coldly and impassively, at her son Vanya’s plea to intercede on Sonia’s behalf. When Serebriakov turns on Vanya and calls him “a mere clerk” we feel the hurt and condemn the ingratitude. David Shaw-Parker as Telegin or “Waffles” plays the guitar and is sympathetic but terribly hurt when he is called an old sponger in the village.
Charlotte Emmerson’s workaday Sonya is downtrodden and sad but accepting and Lucinda Millward’s cold Yelena is the least likable of the female characters, if you can forgive Maria, the elderly mother her blindness to real merit. Yelena’s character is the only one you feel you might actually prefer to see from a distance. Her beauty captivates both Vanya and Astrov and as she vacillates and we don’t really know why she married the professor. She claims it may have been love but mentions his “fame, his brilliant career” that captivated her.
On the walls of William Dudley’s set there are black and white family portraits and rays of charcoal drawn light and shade radiating out from the centre of the walls with the audience seated at the same level in two rows on all four sides. The effect of this closeness is to place us into the same room as the family, to involve the audience. The portraits remind us of all those who once lived here as this play heralds the social change that is to come with the revolution. At the four corners of the room are doors or windows which move in the interval to give a differing perspective of the room and the director does not allow anyone’s back to you for long. Astrov’s emphasis on the future is sobering as we look at post revolutionary Russia today, again with extremes of wealth and corruption.
This production is practically sold out but ring for returns because I promise it will be worth it. It was on originally in March and has returned so that more might see it. You can understand why they are already calling The Print Room a mini Donmar.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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