Writer: Anton Chekhov
Adapter: Peter Gill
Translator: Helen Rappaport
Director: Tamara Harvey
Reviewer: Charlie Senate
To end the second act, Sonya (Rosie Sheehy), the professor’s assiduous daughter, who, along with her uncle Vanya [Jamie Ballard], manages the estate which has funded her father’s academic career, giddily begs her step-mother Elena (Shanaya Rafaat) to play a little diddy. “Oh, do, do! I could not possibly go to sleep now!” Elena, giddy herself, having finally communed with her step-daughter, quickly assents—but permission must first be had from Sonya’s father, who hates music when he is ill. Sonya scampers off, and when she returns her entire body is a limp noodle. The verdict: “He says, no.”
This is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a poignant comic-tragedy on the theme of a wasted life. It is a lively meditation on aspiration met with disappointment, touched by all the ironic hilarity inherent in such ritualistic ablutions—in the act of people living in a place and doing a thing, without entirely understanding why.
It’s safe to say that Theatr Clwyd’s production does justice to the text. It is well-produced, well-staged, well-performed – it’s simply well-done. But, that word: well – —it just keeps popping up. This production is utterly competent in every way, and, without doubt, boasts many standout performances and more than a few stirring scenes. But, somehow, it also lacks that sparkle, that sheen, that accounts for more than mere veneer in the experience.
When Serebryakov (Martin Turner), a retired professor suffering from gout, and his young, frustrated wife Elena, move into his dead wife’s country estate, the clockwork lives of those resident are unduly disrupted. This relocation is spurred not by romanticism, but need: the couple can no longer afford to live in the city; a fact not lost on Vanya, who, along with his niece Sonya, has managed the estate for twenty long years at the cost of his own ambitions. Vanya—clever, insightful, bitter—is infatuated with Elena, as is his similarly-endowed friend, Astrov [Oliver Dimsdale], the country doctor, who considers Russia’s dilapidated forrests the measure of its happiness, and who himself is more than a little admired by the always-commendable, but ordinary Sonya.
Here are the makings for an austere Russian sitcom. But, throughout the first half, the action generally lags, and a number of comic opportunities are missed. Much of the humour that survives seems to rely on eccentric oddities and incongruously modernised gags, rather than the ironies and situational opportunities present in the text. Admittedly, that text, particularly the first two acts, is very much a matter of ‘standing about and talking’—a circumstance that doesn’t lend itself easily to the round, though both director and cast handle this complication admirably. Yet, though the actors take great pains not to impair the view, without the punctuation of those sardonic frivolities or, indeed, the insistence of any stake, the relaxed melange of the first half creates a wall of its own.
The second half picks up considerably, and the production steps up to the plate. There are many wonderful performances here, notably Ballard’s Vanya and Sheehy’s Sonya. Dimsdale, Rafaat, and Ballard provide the intrigue with the miniature-explosions in their disappointed love triangle, and Sheehy, of course, provides the perspective, in the ever-satisfying (and absolutely depressing) closing scene. The set and staging are evocative and the lighting is used subtly and to great effect throughout.
While this production, perhaps, has not tapped every vein available to it, Theatr Clwyd’s Uncly Vanya remains entirely worthy viewing—a wholly capable and occassionally mesmeric rendering of Chekhov’s classic text.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: