Uncle Vanya, by Andrew Upton, directed by Walter Meierjohann; November 8 2017.
Walter Meierjohann’s production of Andrew Upton’s translation of Uncle Vanya forms part of HOME’s season of art, film and theatre inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution: A Revolution Betrayed. Anton Chekhov’s late play was in fact first written and performed two decades before the Revolution. But the atmosphere of Uncle Vanya conveys the sense of a society on the brink of great change, of collapse, of transition to a new mode of life. It seems clear that neither the poor, provincial life of Sonya and Vanya nor the bourgeois existence of the Professor and Yelena can last much longer. The play’s themes also seem surprisingly close to contemporary issues. Not only do Doctor Astrov’s worries about deforestation and environmental issues ring true today, but echoes of the continuing and escalating Harvey Weinstein scandal seem inevitable as we watch Vanya fawn inappropriately over Yelena. Jason Merrells’ suave, vodka-swilling Astrov will later pin her to the wall and demand that she agree to meet with him.
Professor Serebrayakov (David Fleeshman) and his considerably younger wife Yelena (Hara Yannas) have come to stay with his daughter, Sonya and brother-in-law Vanya at the family farm. Their visit has evidently caused havoc for the household; Nanny (Carol Macready) complains at having to serve lunch at 7pm and no one seems to be sleeping. The real thrust of the story centres on a series of unrequited or impossible loves. Katie West’s naïve Sonya, whose long-held love for the country doctor is entirely unreciprocated, is heart-breaking and endearing in her innocence. Conversely, Nick Holder is compellingly tragic and comic in almost equal measures as Vanya, whose obsession with the Professor’s young wife borders on the perverse. The spark between Yelena and Astrov seems mutual, yet the chemistry between Yannas and Merrells certainly lacks the intensity of Sonya’s feeling.
The setting for Meierjohann’s reimagining seems intentionally ambiguous. Far from the 1890s Russia of the original, but equally seemingly too faithful to be considered a truly modern adaptation in the vein of Robert Icke’s 2016 effort, in which Uncle Vanya became Uncle Johnny and the actors played anxiously with Rubik’s cubes. Here the characters, dwarfed by a dingy set covered in stained and peeling striped wallpaper, seem suspended in time and place somewhere between Chekhov’s Russia and contemporary Britain. Steffi Wurster’s set design features a battered old Yamaha piano which, playing itself, seems to juxtapose the chronic inaction of the characters. The music, composed by Marc Tritschler, reflects the indistinct setting in its contemporary twist on traditional Russian music. The brooding soundtrack, with its occasional bursts of hopefulness, is among the most pleasing elements in this production.
At base, this is a story of lives unlived, love unrequited, nature destroyed. Yet it is also a testament to human fortitude, to the belief that hardship should eventually give way to some semblance of peace and contentedness. Sonya’s final speech, probably West’s finest moment, reassures her depressed uncle that their hard work, which has so far only benefited her ungrateful father and step-mother, will be rewarded with ‘rest’. Moments of comedy and high energy punctuate this largely lethargic play; without them one feels that we might slide from Chekhovian gloominess into all-out despair. In one particularly bizarre yet joyful episode Astrov, Vanya and Telegin (Kriss Dosanjh) dance wildly with their trousers around their ankles.
The action almost comes to a head in a farcical pseudo-climax in which Vanya attempts to murder the Professor, whom he blames for his wasted life. He has toiled for years on the family estate to support the art historian’s extravagant life in the city, only to realise that his now aging and gout-ridden brother-in-law is an unknown and failed academic. Vanya shoots twice, missing his target at close range both times; like everything else in his life the attempt on the Professor’s life is half-hearted and bungled. After this, Vanya seems even more the broken man than before; in following scenes he confines himself to a flimsy rollaway bed in the corner of the stage. Typical of Chekvov’s rejection of the classical Aristotelian rising and falling action culminating in a dramatic denouement, there is finally no climactic turning point.
Indeed, though Uncle Vanya may raise and explore issues pertinent to the current day, it comes to few conclusions and provides no real solutions to these characters’ woes. At the play’s close the Professor and Yelena simply return to their privileged life in the city; Vanya has promised to continue sending them the same amount of money as before. As is often the case in life and in Chekhov, there is no satisfying ending, no particular sense of closure. Emotions remain raw; the visitors may be ‘gone’, as Sonya, Vanya and his mother Maria all announce, but one feels that the effects of their coming will endure indefinitely. What, then, are we to take from this melancholic play? This is left for the audience to ponder; as Chekhov once said, ‘[t]he role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.’
The production is transferring to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre soon