Review: Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in a new version by Anya Reiss, at the St James theatre

Uncle Vanya St James theatre posterAnton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a pretty ordinary tragedy. Wasted lives by default and undue care, squandered opportunities, realisations coming too late. It’s as ordinary as it is immense. Could anything have changed? Can it still? Does it matter? Is it best to lack the willingness or the intellect? These characters are self-aware, but have no energy to do anything about it.

In the new version by Anya Reiss, directed by Russell Bolam, the story is set in modern times and, sad to say, lacks bite. If I included these statements in the same sentence, it’s not because they are intrinsically linked. The modern setting could have worked well, in fact I can see the play reflected all around me. (We ‘d like to think the world is our oyster and we are savvy in making choices and having portfolio lives but truth is, from one rushed day to the next, moments are often lived thoughtlessly).

The production taps into the ridiculousness of the characters but doesn’t allow enough space for their tenderness. Much of their passionate preoccupations are flattened out, or excised completely. It’s hard to see the richness of their lives wasting away as their existence was shallow and one-dimensional in the first place. The setting is indistinct: I was almost surprised to find out how hard the characters had worked on the land, as there is no sense of a world outside. The visit of the professor and his wife is supposed to be a volcanic eruption in the lives of these characters, but I saw no evidence of that: the bored ennui seemed to be a permanent feature. As a result, the story takes a colourless quality, storytelling by numbers: one thing happens after another, with enough variation in volume but not enough depth.

The presence of acting talent on stage is not in question, but I felt the actors had a hard time justifying the volume and variation in their performance: John Hannah gives Uncle Vanya a kind of risible aloofness but I never felt enough of the pain, hard work or desperation. Equally, Joe Dixon as Astrov plays up the absurdities and the carefree boorishness – and he really works hard at them – but the thoughtfulness of the character is trampled on, made to look irrelevant. Amanda Hale is an actress who can latch onto exquisite pain with rare immediacy, and her Sonya has many of these moments but they look out of place, hardly justified by the circumstances. I was particularly disappointed with Rebecca Night whose Yelena is doll-like but emotionally immobile. Jack Shepherd as the professor projects thoughtless desperation but not enough of the former glory: it’s difficult to see how he ever had (or still has) any influence over other people’s lives.

The production is peppered with farcical transitionings that are awkward: they betray uncertainty rattling in the bones of the play. That was my overall impression of the production: uncertainty and busyness that suffocates the delicate details of an everyday ordinary tragedy. Pity as the raw talent and material were all there.

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