Uncle Vanya – Hope Theatre, London

Writer: Anton Chekhov, adapted by Brendan Murray 

Director: James Stone 

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Plays by Anton Chekhov are many things: but short they are not. Brendan Murray’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya takes the original’s four acts and fillets them down into a single, 85-minute act of four scenes, reducing it to a scope reducible on a fringe theatre budget.

Perhaps the best part of this abridgement process is that the core story structure feels relatively intact. True, the play’s minor characters disappear; Vanya’s mother Maria is referred to as “refusing to leave her room”, while Telegin is excised completely. This allows the play to focus on the other men – Vanya himself, his brother-in-law Serebryakov and Astrov, the local doctor – and how each man’s feelings for Serebryakov’s second wife Yelena affects their views of the future.

And yet it is the central relationship between two women that is the strongest core of this piece. Cassandra Hodges’s Sonya, an unmarried woman stuck working for the estate she technically owns, gives the impression of a character who with just a little more self-belief could achieve greatness. Her relationship with her stepmother Yelena – played by Esme Mahoney as full of Chelsea ennui– sparkles when James Stone’s direction allows.

Elsewhere, relationships do not feel quite as solidly represented. DK Ugonna’s Astrov and Adrian Wheeler’s Vanya never quite feel like the old friends they need to be. Nor, too, does the relationship between Vanya and Rory McCallum’s Serebryakov quite work, especially in the crucial scenes where Serebryakov floats the idea of selling his daughter’s estate and using the proceeds to secure a more stable income for himself and his young wife, never quite gels. The anger in each actor’s line readings never quite transfers into their reactions to the other’s, resulting in a stilted argument that lacks the necessary power.

And this all plays into this production’s biggest fault: that Uncle Vanya is reduced almost to supporting character in his own drama. While the excision of other characters helps to reduce the running time of Chekhov’s original, it also constricts what we learn of Vanya from his interactions with others. We are left with a man defined by his adolescent protestations of love to Yelena, with little else to round out the character.

Murray’s adaptation does help to bring out some of the ecological concerns of Astrov’s obsession with forestry, a side plot that echoes contemporary concerns. And with a set and soundscape that evokes the stuffiness of a Russian drawing room at the height of a humid summer, Uncle Vanya is a laudable attempt to bring one of Russia’s theatrical masterpieces to a fringe setting.

Runs until 11 May 2019 | Image: Contributed

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laudable abridging

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