Uncle Vanya – St James Theatre, London
Writer: Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Anya Reiss
Director: Russell Bolam
Reviewer: Christopher Hong
This new version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Anya Reiss brings the action to modern day rural northern England. Set on a farm run by Vanya and his niece Sonya, they are visited by Sonya’s respected but pompous academic father Alexander and his young and beautiful wife Yelena. Vanya and his good friend Dr Astrov are both attracted to the unobtainable Yelena and Sonya herself is hopelessly in love with Dr Astrov. When Alexander announces he is going to sell the farm to fund his lifestyle in the city, all those frustrations are brought to the fore.
The modern setting adds little to the themes and story apart from a few comical touches such as an “Heisenbird” T-Shirt and such like. It does free the language and allows for a much less melodramatic text. The liberal physical comedy lightens the extensive scene setting in the first half. Firstly there is Dr Astrov’s outstanding drunken scene, brilliantly played by Joe Dixon. And then there is John Hannah’s layabout Vanya, frustrated with life to the point where he drapes himself onto the furniture instead of sitting on it.
The main theme concentrates on unrequited love and the secondary is focused on the lack of one’s achievements in life. The lightness that makes the play enjoyable undermines the central theme, reducing it to a restrained farce. It is a commendable effort by the director Russell Bolam who works hard at binding the contradicting elements together. This extends to the set, with a cold corrugated iron backdrop which may reflect the monetary position of the farm, but is at odds with what is a rather warm group of friends and family.
Apart from the excellent work by Dixon and Hannah, Rebecca Night’s Yelena is suitably beautiful yet with a bland personality barely mustering a hint of passion when required, but very much in character. The supposedly plain Sonya is played by the not so plain Amanda Hale which perhaps undermines the story. And the failed attempt to dress her down has the completely opposite effect. But her portrayal of Sonya’s innocence and fragility is endearing and effective.
This is a mixed production with plenty of ideas and unfortunately not everything works. But it does provide rather pleasant and light viewing which makes it a nice change for a night with Chekhov.
Runs until 8th November