Classics don’t always have to be dusty, outdated and dull – in today’s theatre we are accustomed to modern adaptations that bring unattainable yet fantastic works into our reach. Director Grace Smith has brought Chekhov’s tragicomedy Uncle Vanya out of the playwright’s 1890’s rural Russia into an ambiguously twentieth century rural Russia (maybe the seventies, looking at the costumes).
It always seems fitting for a Chekhov play to be brought into a more modern era, as the dramatist often themes his works around change. The scene opens with the arrival of a Dr Astroff (Stephen MacNeice), who often comes to check in on the old professor, Alexander (Richard Ward), in his country home. The old professor and his young, glamorous and beautiful wife Helena (Elana Martin) are staying at the country estate with their relative, Uncle Vanya (Gary Heron), his mother, Madame Voitskaya (Carol Norris) and the professor’s young but plain daughter Sonia (Rowena Gray). Stuck in such tight quarters, it goes without saying that emotions are heightened around the estate and the men cannot resist Helena’s charm and beauty. Only Nurse Marin (Suzanne Tooney) is able to keep the normality around the estate.
The play is relatively unexciting as the plot concentrates more on the character’s interactions towards each other rather than creating compelling plot lines. Yet that doesn’t mean that the play is soporific at all. The emotions of each character change so suddenly that some scenes are unnecessarily melodramatic, but mostly this creates a subtle undertone of comedy that really helps to keep the audience captivated. There is one genuinely dramatic scene towards the end of the play that seems forgiven and forgotten all too quickly.
Every character has the ability to surprise the audience with unlikely qualities. Helena comes across as a sulky teenager at first, but the hidden pain and boredom is played beautifully by Martin so that she soon becomes the most likeable character in the play. Sonia seems a sweet and naïve girl but, by the end of the play, she shows more depth but also always seems in the way of all the others. Uncle Vanya first appears good-natured and humorous, so a sudden flip brings with it all the main action of the play. The doctor and the professor are also no strangers to a sudden change in behaviour. It is as though the close encounters drive them all to a point where they can no longer think straight.
Even though not much actually happens in this play, it doesn’t lose its entertainment value for a moment. The cast can be too theatrical and overemotional and could use a bit of toning down, but overall it is a rather pleasant little production.
Uncle Vanya plays at The London Theatre until 14 June. For more information and tickets, see The London Theatre website.