Writer: Anton Chekhov
Adapter: Andrew Upton
Director: Walter Meierjohann
Reviewer: Matthew Forrest
Chekhov classic Uncle Vanya seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment, with the play being performed in various nation-wide productions. As part of HOME’s season marking the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Andrew Upton’s adaptation of the play is certainly one of the highlights of the festival and one that is creating a great deal of excitement.
Set during an unspecified time, we are transported to a decaying Russian country estate where Professor Serebrayakov is convalescing from a bout of gout. Accompanying him is his younger, beautiful second wife Yelena, who are both being taken care of by the various serving staff, but more specifically by Serebrayakov’s daughter from his first marriage, Sonya, his brother-in-law, Vanya, and a local doctor, Astrov. The professor and his wife live a lavish lifestyle funded by the hard-work of Sonya and Vanya. Eventually, Vanya’s resentment towards his brother-in-law and his desire for Yelena rise to the surface, throwing into the mix an unrequited love triangle between Yelena, Sonya, and Astrov; you have a melting pot that eventually will come to a head.
Uncle Vanya is somewhat of a mixed bag that at times captivates and frustrates in equal measure. The themes Chekhov explores are timeless and something we can all relate to: from personal struggles of wasted opportunity and unrequited love through to larger troubles. Economic injustice and environmental issues are as prominent now as they were 120 years ago when the play was written. Upton gives a faithful adaptation filled with high drama, pathos and a darkly-comedic underbelly.
All cast are on good form, Hara Yannas is excellent as the misunderstood borderline femme-fatale Yelena. Nick Holder is equally as good as Vanya, who at first glance appears as a comic presence but as the narrative progresses becomes more and more tragic. However, unquestionably the highlight of the show is the performance of Katie West as Sonya. She underplays her part to perfection, Sonya is kind and sweet and one of the few likeable characters in the whole play. You want her to succeed and find happiness, but know her fate is sealed, which is further solidified by her heart-breaking soliloquy at the end of the play. The supporting cast are strong, Jason Merrells brings charm to the idealistic Astrov, whilst David Fleeshman is suitably irritating as Professor Serebrayakov. There were a few fluffed lines in parts but nothing that spoilt your enjoyment.
My main complaint is that in some instances less is more, and this would certainly be the case with Uncle Vanya; characters often break into long winded and over aggrandising speeches, which become tiresome after a while and leave little to the imagination. When Vanya has his rant at Serebrayakov, it seems flat and inconsequential, as Vanya had said this stated this in previous scenes. It dilutes the action and leads to a somewhat anti-climactic ending. More is said by characters sideways glances to one another, and their movement about the stage than in some of the long-winded dialogue.
High praise must be given to the creative team behind the production, Steffi Wurster’s dank, dingy set design in conjunction with Mike Gunning’s powerful lighting design and Melanie Wilson’s sound design gives the production that much needed feeling of claustrophobia, being isolated and trapped by your surroundings and circumstances which are essential to the piece.
Uncle Vanya is a thought-provoking, challenging piece: a few cuts to the running time and some of the speeches would make it a more engaging and rewarding experience. The play still has something to say today and will still be relevant 100 years from now.
Runs until the 25 Nov 2017 | Image: Jonathan Keenan