Theatre Royal, Bath
The passing of the years is sending the career of Rupert Everett into ever more fascinating facets. His otherworldly beauty and Adonis physique may have weathered but it’s as though this has allowed the artistry that was always inside to blossom. A career full of what if’s; he could have been Bond, he should have been a major Hollywood player, seems to now be etched all over his face, perfect for portraying the ultimate role of middle-aged disenchantment, Chekhov’s Ivan Vonitsky, the titular protagonist Uncle Vanya in the second of the great Russian’s four mature masterpieces.
Here we first glimpse him pissing behind a ghost-like curtain, before throwing himself headfirst down onto the bed in a hazy, drunken, existential crisis. His features hangdog like, and rocking a thick Siberian moustache, Everett’s Vanya offers a dash of another role he has tackled in recent years – Oscar Wilde. It’s a fascinating take on the role, one that teeters on the edge of going too far but just straying on the rope.
This Vanya feels like he belongs in a different world, the one true star who has dimmed his light to keep the estate going through the years and realises too late that his potential has been wasted. Everett plays the role with a hint of manic wildness, when he produces and fires a gun, it feels like an inevitable turn for this Wildman driven close to insanity by the turgid days and everlasting night. It’s a performance that shows Everett’s artistry growing ever richer.
Yet his performance hides some of his deficiencies inherent in his production. Though it looks stunning in designer Charles Quiggin’s foliage laced set, opened up in the second half to show the vast estate in all its stultifying beauty, it’s a work that never gets to the heart of this transcendent play.
It’s certainly not helped by David Hare’s brisk translation, clocking in at just two hours including interval, it has no chance to explore character or relationships of the ensemble in any true detail. Secondary characters like Ann Mitchell’s Marina and Marty Cruickshank’s Maria don’t get the chance to make a mark, however strong the individual performers are.
Meanwhile, Michael Byrne’s Serebryakov, the famous writer whose reintroduction to the farm along with his beautiful wife Yelena sets off the emotional catalyst for all the drama to come, doesn’t get the opportunity to play anything but gout ridden, crotchety old man. The charisma and knowledge needed to have attracted a great beauty is hidden away. In trimming the material down by at least a third Hare has only allowed these characters to show some of their facets, stopping them from becoming fully three dimensional.
The only one who rises above that is Katherine Parkinson’s Sonya. This is no ‘plain’ women as she self-describes herself but a sturdy, dependable sort who is no longer noticed. The tragedy here is that John Light’s Astrov, still on a crutch after an onstage accident, doesn’t see the ideal partner he has right in front of him, choosing alcohol to numb the pain of a society that doesn’t heed his ecological disaster warning and an awareness that his great mind has gone underappreciated. The terrific Parkinson, so good recently in Home I’m Darling, shows that in every comedian a tragedian is waiting to come out. Her work, alongside Everett, makes the evening.
Clemence Poésy makes Yelena a cold fish, burying her disenchantment into cold blank stares, her one moment of potential joy cut off when she is refused access to playing her beloved piano. Yet the chemistry between her and Light isn’t there and her young bride seems a fairly sexless creature, it makes the men’s hapless falling for her even more pathetic.
The actor-manager role fell out of fashion some years ago and the evidence can be seen here. For while Everett’s Vanya is often placed front and centre, the rest of the cast struggle vocally to fill the space, leading to inaudibility problems. It often feels like an old-fashioned star vehicle, one that Everett pulls off with aplomb, if at the expense of the play as a whole
. Uncle Vanya plays at Bath Theatre Royal until the 3rd August.