New Wimbledon Studio Theatre, London – until 23 November 2019 (Old Red Lion Theatre, London 2-7 December 2019)
As one of Anton Chekhov’s most critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful plays, Uncle Vanya is always a highlight on the theatrical calendar. Adapted by Venetia Twigg and directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, the current production which is touring with Theatrical Niche stays true to the spirit of its origins, while also fleshing out aspects that resonate today.
The presence of Professor Aleksandr Serebryakov (Mike Aherne) on his rural estate has upset the natural equilibrium of everyone who works or frequents there. Chief among these is Sonia (Foxey Hardman) – the professor’s daughter and her uncle, Ivan Vanya (Matthew Houlihan) – the brother of the professor’s first wife and senior caretaker of the estate. Out of character, Mikhail Astroff (David Tudor), the local doctor has gone from being an occasional visitor to dropping by daily. This can be explained by his regular drinking sessions with Vanya, but while they have a similar disposition, what piques Astroff’s interest is someone else entirely…
Cue Yelena (Venetia Twigg) – the professor’s beautiful, second wife, who also is much younger than him. Her presence, more than anyone, spurs everyone to think about what they want out of life. Of course, once you start questioning how happy you are, it’s impossible to put rescind such thoughts, like trying to put a genie back into a bottle…
In the case of Vanya, Yelena is a reminder that she is something… someone he wants for himself and not out of familial duty, as he has done for the estate his whole adult life. For Astroff who has a productive existence in not only serving the community but also active in long-term conservation, Yelena represents a break fron his conscientious, purpose-driven life. And while he tries to convince himself that beyond Yelena’s looks there isn’t about her that is of intellectual interest to him, he finds himself drawn to her, like bees around honey… After all, there ‘isn’t’ anyone locally worth knowing…
Which leads us to Sonia. She’s been in love with Astroff for many a year, but because of her ‘plain’ looks, he hasn’t given her a second thought. With Yelena on the scene, any nascent feelings that Astroff may had for Sonia are permanently filed away under ‘platonic’, leaving her with little hope… While Uncle Vanya is not afraid to dwell on the characters’ ‘soul-searching’, it isn’t bereft of humour, though as in all things in the play, events and responses are driven organically by the respective personalties.
L-R: David Tudor and Foxey Hardman
One of my favourite scenes in the play is when Yelena wants to have long, frank discussion with Sonia. From Yelena’s perspective, there is an unbreachable chasm between herself and her ‘stepdaughter’, who are close to each other in age. Then there is the fact Yelena lives a life that is bereft of work or responsibility – made possible by the labour of Sonia and Vanya. Of course, Sonia denies there is a rift, but both know that it’s true and the ‘awkwardness’ that hangs between them is beautifully played by Hardman and Twigg. However, the real ‘elephant in the room’ is their respective feelings for Astroff – how ‘honest’ they are, ‘woman to woman’ and how honest they are with themselves… There are plenty of scenes throughout the play where subtext is key and for those who observe the nuances in the exchanges, much to savour.
Matthew Houlihan in the eponymous role
As in Three Sisters, another Chekhovian classic, all the characters here wrestle with their own private reasons for being unsatisfied with life, with each of them working through their feeings and what they plan to do as a consequence. Ironically the only character who is relatvely content by the end is the professor. However, it only goes to show that if you have love in your life, it can make up for a great many things, but without it – even for those blessed with purposeful, busy lives or financial independence – it’s at best an inert life. But to everything there is a season, and after the autumn and winter there is always the spring…
© Michael Davis 2019
Uncle Vanya runs at New Wimbledon Studio (London) until 23rd November @ 7:45pm
It then continues its tour at The Place Theatre (Bedford) – 29th November @ 2:30pm and @ 7:30pm…
… and then at Old Red Lion Theatre (Angel, London) – 2nd-7th December @ 7:30pm
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