There’s a Chekhov to suit every taste at the moment – the rambunctious Russian Uncle Vanya at the Noel Coward, the just-ended Three Sisters at the Young Vic, Anya Reiss’s new translation of The Seagull opening at the Southwark Playhouse next week, and this pared-back Uncle Vanya from Lindsay Posner at the Vaudeville. It will not be to everyone’s taste, certainly, but I found it affecting and enjoyable.
Posner’s version is very funny but neither loses nor glosses over the deep-rooted melancholy and ennui at the heart of the play. Christopher Hampton’s script is a rather lovely thing, nuanced and witty without losing the odd directness with which all of Chekhov’s creations speak. Posner’s staging is rather more naturalistic than the script sometimes allows, and the cast imbue Hampton’s words with the crushing weight of depression alongside the chit-chat and teasing that goes on amongst close companions.
Christopher Oram’s rather boxy, austere set will also divide the critics, I suspect, but I adored it. Beautifully, delicately lit by Paul Pyant, the placement of furniture and actors amongst heavy, dark wooden beams and walls had the stilted, confined beauty of a still life. Somehow, between them, Oram and Pyant have pinned down the subtlety and stillness of a Vermeer on a West End stage, and it is truly remarkable to watch. Their design is also oppressive, reinforcing how listless and trapped all of the characters are.
As a piece of theatre, however, it doesn’t always hang together. With not a lot of actual plot to depend on to move the action along, this production occasionally languishes with its characters in the slow, lazy, dull days. This is a dangerous move for a director, and there are times when the audience, too, are likely to become listless and fidgety. The middle of Act Two drags, as does the beginning of Act Three. Chekhov places almost all of the meat of the play – the one action scene – at the end of Act Three which means an awful lot of exposition in the build-up. What felt slightly misjudged, to me, was the way Posner builds tension in the second act, which instead of climaxing rather fizzles out into the interval.
Samuel West’s brooding Doctor Astrov is splendid, torn between the future he imagines and wishes for for future generations, and the desires and duties that weigh upon him in the present. His relationship with the besotted Sonya (Laura Carmicheal) and the beautiful Yelena (Anna Friel) is well done – the tensions are palpable and mostly not overblown. I found Carmichael a little shrill at times, however, she plays the repressed and buttoned-up Sonya with a heartbreaking intensity when tentatively reaching for new happiness. Ken Stott, as the eponymous Vanya, conveys a deeply unhappy man with a depth that prevents the character’s more self-indulgent moments from moving from melancholy to mawkish. Friel’s Yelena is a bit limp; she moons around the stage without much purpose, although this is more a fault of the character than of the actor.
The scene changes take an inordinately long time, but the reveal is worth it every time – Oram’s sets really are a joy to behold. Posner has a solid performance on his hands, and one that mostly handles both script and plot with a deft touch. It’s not a superlative production, but the visual beauty is hard to overstate.
Uncle Vanya is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 16 February 2013. For for information and tickets visit the Nimax Theatres website. Image by Nobby Clark.