The past is black and white. Or at least in our photo albums and imaginations it is. I remember reading that the statues of Ancient Greece were painted a range of bright colours which, thanks to sometimes literally being buried in the sands of time, wore off leaving only the creamy marble and gentle golden hues we associate with ancient art. What’s interesting is that even when archaeological evidence points to the opposite, we often prefer to maintain that colour, like sex for Larkin, was a modern invention.
Peter Gill’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya preserves the play’s original temporal setting, but thanks to Lucy Osborne’s multichromatic set and costume design this is a period drama presented in glorious Technicolor. Blood red wine is poured into tiny glasses, Elena (Shanaya Rafaat) is a haze of lavender fabric and raven black ringlets, and even the floor tiling is a split of earthy brown and turquoise, interrupted by a bright ruby rug. The word ‘vibrant’ can suggest both a saturation of colour or an aliveness of spirit. Here, it is the use of colour that imbues the fictional past with life: vibrant in both senses of the word.
Ric Mountjoy’s lighting design plays no small part in this colourful tableau, continually reminding the audience of the summertime rural setting. Outside of Theatr Clwyd, a damp mist is slowly settling in for the night, but inside the auditorium everything is illuminated in a strong, yellow glow. As the play reaches its conclusion, the light is used to show the transition from summer to autumn, along with the feeling of impending doom hanging over the characters. Yet it also serves the purpose of suggesting heat, specifically the type of languor-inducing heat that helps explain the boredom experienced by the stagnant, stifled people inhabiting the suffocating world of the country estate.
Neither Gill’s new interpretation nor director Tamara Harvey’s production offer a radical new approach to Chekhov, yet there is a crispness to this Uncle Vanya and an attention to detail that makes this more than another classic revival. One of my sins is that I really like Chekhov – I used to read his short stories on the bus to university and chuckle merrily away like the nerd I was and am – so I thoroughly enjoyed this production. I imagine, however, that if you don’t share my existing enthusiasm for offbeat humour and small town trials and tribulations, it’s unlikely this will be the staging that transforms his work for you.
The beauty, however, is that everything happening on stage has the feel of being created by people who also really like Chekhov – people who take enough joy in the original not to possess a desire for drastic revisions. From the endless array of correct glassware squirrelled away in cupboards, to the perfect embroidery on Mariya’s (Sharon Morgan) apron, there is much about this production that seems lovingly and carefully done.
This is particularly true with respect to the costumes. Costuming is an aspect of historical drama on stage and screen that gets short shrift from those who see it as insipid window dressing or indulgent fluff masking a lack of serious plot. Fashion, however, can reveal a huge amount, if you bother to pay attention. In Uncle Vanya, the clothing is full of the normal clues about class, social standing and – in the be-ruffled Vanya’s case – the state of a person’s happiness. However, in taking the time to painstakingly recreate the layer-upon-layer of nineteenth century clothing, the feeling of claustrophobia – as with the ever-present sun – becomes more visceral.
What always strikes me when seeing this type of clothing up close is the sheer volume of material, the heft of this extra layering. The older I get, the more I become a fan of Comfort-with-a-capital-C (send me soft jumpers, huge scarfs and shirt dresses), and despite occasionally yearning to look like a Russian ingénue, I can’t imagine doing so was a lot of FUN. Elena’s beauty and femininity are both beguiling and yet utterly constricting; dictating in a literal way each step she takes, each position she holds herself in. Even when ready for bed, her elaborate bouffant of curls has barely been relaxed, instead the ends of each section are now bound in strips of ribbon in anticipation for tomorrow. In a play where no one is getting enough sex (or any at all) the fact they’re all so tightly wound in elaborate bits of cloth seems almost like a joke – I mean, it wouldn’t be easy to fling all that off in a hurry.
‘Costume drama’ may not be held in the highest of esteem, but as with the intensity of colour and lighting it is this quality of the production that makes Chekhov’s potentially hard-to-love characters oddly normal and, in the small in-the-round staging, not all that different to the people watching.
Uncle Vanya is on until 14 October 2017 at Theatr Clwyd before transferring to Sheffield Theatre Studio. Click here for more details.