Following on from their production of Anna Karenina (by Birmingham’s Piano Removal Company), the Arcola remains in Russia with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (a co-production with Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre), a play, which like Tolstoy’s novel, also features a young wife in an unfulfilling marriage with a much older husband.
This new version by Polish-born director Helena Kaut-Howson and Jon Strickland, who plays the title role, aims to move away from the “fossilising reverence” often found in English translations of Chekhov, extracting the full potential of the farcical elements that run concurrently with the disillusionment of so many wasted lives. Kaut-Howson’s fluid approach, strong performances from the entire cast and the detailed period design offer a glimpse into a long vanished world of country estates and lace parasols, but much of it is universal, particularly the frustration felt by the characters whose purpose in life is to do supposedly cleverer people’s work for them.
Sophie Jump’s three quarters in the round design helps to break down some of the potential distance between the characters and the audience, perfectly evoking the clutter of a picturesque but slightly distressed country estate. Alex Wardle’s atmospheric lighting hints at the heady indolence of a balmy summer afternoon full of familial and erotic tensions that can only be hidden under a mask of ennui for so long. The use of incidental music (by Boleslaw Rawski) gives the busier scenes an effectively cinematic quality, but is a little overly emphatic in some of the more reflective moments.
The return of Professor Alexander Serebreyakov (a suitably curmudgeonly performance by Geoffrey Whitehead) and his beautiful wife Yelena to his country estate interrupts the order maintained by the estate managers, his daughter, Sonya and brother-in-law, Vanya. Vanya’s misplaced hero worship is perhaps what’s most hurtful of all, being deceived that dedicating his life to the service of a genius was a noble thing to do, and the devastation of discovering that his brother-in-law’s ‘talent’ was based on delusion. Likewise, the environmentalism of Sonya’s unrequited love Dr Astrov (a charismatic Simon Gregor) is equally in vain, in which pioneers of change, rather than making improvements, simply repeat the same mistakes of the past.
Jon Strickland’s nervy Vanya is not a repressed genius, but a man who, like anyone given the right opportunities, could have achieved more. Marianne Oldham is luminously languid as the “regrettably faithful” second wife with “mermaid blood.” She has the power to set all the male hearts aflame, initially appearing to be something of an unknowable ice queen, but provides one of the most emotional moments with the burst of joy when she and her stepdaughter fling their arms around each other and finally come to an understanding.
Most poignant of all is Hara Yannas’s Sonya, who seems unbearably young to have her dreams crushed so completely. She’s imbued with a grim determination to get on with the dull work she’s been sentenced to, which prevents her from appearing like a victim. On the contrary, there is something heroic about her refusal to give in to self pity, particularly when she is surrounded by pervading melancholy that seems almost contagious.