Uncle Vanya – March 2008


By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th March 2008

This is one of the few plays where I saw a fantastic production first time out, which makes it difficult for me to be entirely fair to all subsequent productions. This one didn’t do too badly, mind you, and the translation was excellent – suitably up-to-date and flowing without jarring at all.

It was the first production put on in the new Rose Theatre at Kingston, and the set reflects that acting space. The stage is basically an open space, with no flats and minimal dressing. There’s a tree to reflect the countryside, but otherwise it’s just tables, chairs, a piano and an easel, all of which are moved around to create the appropriate rooms. It’s an interesting use of space, giving a very open feel, and acknowledging the theatricality of the piece while still giving us fairly precise locations to frame the action. I liked that awareness of the artificiality. This is the first time I’ve seen a production of a Chekov play where the comedic emphasis really worked. I could see what the writer was trying to achieve – these are comedies after all – and could appreciate the humour he was bringing out by having such over-the-top reactions from such ordinary folk. I still feel there’s more to be got out of the play on the emotional side than I saw tonight, but I have a better understanding of Chekov’s sense of humour now, which I hope will help when I see his other plays.

The performances were good overall. The best for me was Loo Brealy as Sonya. She got across the range of that character’s emotions very well, from her rampant explanation of the doctor’s ideas to her attempt to comfort her uncle at the end of the play. I also liked Ronald Pickup as the professor, as I found I could relate both to his feelings as he goes through his pain and discomfort, and to the effect he’s having on everyone around him, making them dance attendance and disrupting the smooth running of the household. It’s Yelena’s beauty that disrupts the emotional life of the estate, but it’s his presence in the first place that throws the rhythm of their lives out of balance and makes them more vulnerable to the other temptations (I reckon). His grumpiness was mainly down to his ill-health, and once the nanny character gave him some sympathy, he was putty in her hands.

I also noticed how much the characters seemed to be throwing their lines at each other, and not really communicating at all, except sporadically. The soliloquies were also presented clearly, with each soliloquiser coming to the centre front of the stage to speak to the audience. No musing out loud here, which is another way the theatricality of the piece was emphasised.

The doctor, played by Neil Pearson, was sneaking vodka into his tea during the first scene. I was less sure this time that the doctor actually does as much work as he says he does. Like most of the men in this play, he’s good at grumbling, including grumbling about how much other people grumble. Michelle Dockery as Yelena gave me the impression of a fish out of water. She had no idea how to live in the country, and although she was honest enough about her feelings for her husband, that was about the extent of her virtues. She doesn’t want to work, she’s trapped in a loveless marriage, and she doesn’t seem to realise how much of an effect she’s having on the people around her, apart from her husband. I didn’t get the feeling that she’s really interrogating the doctor about Sonya in order to snare him for herself this time.

So overall it was an enjoyable evening, with some interesting variations that have given me a fair bit to think about. The post-show discussion added a few pieces of information, which I’ve incorporated into the notes.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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