Hampstead Theatre, London – until 12 January 2019
I have a friend of Russian heritage who boycotts any Chekhov production which lacks scabby birch-trees, a samovar and some parasols. She’ll do fine here, though the windy autumnal setting precludes parasol-work: Tim Shortall’s setting, indoor and out, is mournfully resonant of its 1890s, pre-Revolutionary rural world.
It is, on the surface, the gloomiest of Uncle Anton ’s works: country drudgery stirred up by a visit, enervated family relationships, unspoken resentments, lost loves and lives wasted, the city popinjays carelessly unfeeling and the decent people stuck quivering like flies in circumstance’s web.
Yet its very accuracy prevents it from depressing the viewer: some moods, looked at levelly and with a suspicion of mockery, have the power to assert something rather beautiful in humanity. One of the fascinating things about Chekhov’s studies in frustration, disappointment and ennui is how unfrustrating they actually are.
This one has to revolve around Vanya, and Alan Cox is suitably winning in Vanya’s dismayed, demoralised self-aware failure to count in life, and his hopeless mooning admiration of the lovely Yelena, who has married his awful old brother-in-law the Professor.
Cox brings the part a rare vigour and lovability just, as it were, below the surface of the grumpy hopelessness. He gives us all of it: explosive fury at the Professor after his 25 faithful years of unthanked work on the family estate “buried alive with my own mother”, a moment when he crumbles in painful shame, and the last scene as he weeps alongside his niece Sonia for their two broken futures.
All the cast are very fine indeed, but alongside Cox a tribute is particularly owed to Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia: with underplayed glances and tiny moves of urgency she shows all the misery of unrequited love, and how much more than the glorious Yelena she deserves it.
Terry Johnson, adapting from literal translations and directing, skilfully mines it for all the author’s dry humour and regretful human absurdity:I have rarely seen a more preposterously ghastly old Professor, monster of selfishness and vanity, than Robin Soans’s. But the other Chekhovian fascination, which brings directors and audiences constantly back to the works, is that because of the intricate subtleties and sympathies every production leaves you with a slightly different heartache. Twice lately, in the final scene between Sonia and her uncle, it has been Vanya I wept for (Roger Allan had me in actual tears). This time the greater sorrow was for Sonia.
And even a little too for Alec Newman’s Astrov, a fiery forerunner of all our modern fears about the rapine of nature and the rich soil, yet one who cannot see how Sonia would suit his deeper needs because he can only see glorious, idle Yelena – though “all she does is eat and sleep and glide around entrancing us all”. She too has her humanity, trapped by her elderly horror of a husband and alienated from her one talent (oh, that slam of the piano lid in he long stormy drunken night !). And , as if to remind us that only universal sympathy can save us, the awful Professor Sebreriakov, self-serving hypochondriac fraud, himself has his moment of aged pain, looking back at the time when he was someone. “I am in exile from my past. My past, where I belong!”.
But all of them, all of us, are anchored by the old folk, Nanny and the sweetly useless Teliegin, who know that geese cackle, life goes on, and as long as you have tea and bread and vodka, it just bloody well has to do. Can’t think of a better morality for Brexitmas 2018.
www. hampsteadtheatre.com to 12 Jan