Why? Why do we keep updating Chekhov? Is it useful? Is it even possible? I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to those questions, but certainly in the case of Sam Holcroft’s modernised Vanya (even the title is stripped back) why was the question I continued to ask myself as the 1895 drama played out in the sparse confines of the Citizens’ circle studio to my ever-growing frustration.
The plot remains the same as Chekhov’s original. A collection of ill-relating relations amble around their rickety rural estate, sleep patterns out of whack due to the unwelcome return of terminally ill patriarch Serebryakov and his much younger second wife Yelena.
Serebryakov’s embittered brother-in-law, Vanya (from his first marriage– yes, it gets complicated) battles with moralising country doctor Astrov for Yelena’s attentions, while Serebryakov self-sacrificing daughter Sonya pines for Astrov from afar and begs her Uncle to forget the beautiful newcomer and lie down in the bed of loneliness and missed opportunities he’s constructed for himself throughout his lifetime.
Unlike the two previous Up Close productions, which clearly mirrored the Close Theatre Co.’s penchant for subversive, anarchic productions, there are no obvious reasons for the Citz to restage Uncle Vanya as a minimalist four-hander. In fact, the claustrophobia of the studio setting seems in direct opposition to the vast Russian wilderness (both geographical and emotional) that is a prime feature of Chekhovian naturalism. As a result, the audience are given a stunted drama, confined to one room instead of a lonely estate, and a suffocating tangle of emotional neediness between four repressed adults instead of a nominally heart-breaking bowing to circumstance.
Frustratingly, the cast give fine performances throughout. Helen MacKay’s Sonya is a gentle, appealing sort, but her need to be subservient is alienating–especially in a modern woman. Vanya’s self-defeating attitude makes more sense in Keith Fleming’s sullen alcoholic, but there are still discrepancies. In particular, the decision to have Serebryakov only ever spoken of and never present blunts the verbal barbs Vanya levels at his ‘bitterest enemy’ and in turn the audience’s sympathy for the titular old grafter. Is his anger justified? Or is Serebryakov’s purported selfishness just another whitewash to cover Vanya’s own inaction? Similarly, in a period Chekhov, Scarlett Mack’s unexpectedly sympathetic Yelena would work beautifully, but here the continued invisibility of her husband leaves us confused as to why she doesn’t just skip on the next train to Edinburgh with Mark Wood’s philosophising doctor Astrov.
There are also odd inconsistencies in the direction. The most annoying of which might be how oblivious characters are to various pivotal exchanges happening only a few feet away. The ambiguous costuming (jeans, sixties-style dresses, hoodies) makes it impossible to distinguish a time period, as does Astrov’s 1950s medicine bag and the odd modern day curse word that jarringly peppers the otherwise refined dialogue. The set, consisting mainly of various individual chairs and lamps, is subtly suggestive of a disintegrating household while the softly dimming and brightening lighting works well as a focus lens to re-direct the audience’s attention to different characters. However, I can’t help but feel Gareth Nicholls’ usual creativity has been hemmed in by the double blow of an unconvincing script and the sparseness of the Up Close ethos, which was harnessed to far greater effect in the season’s two previous productions, Lot and His God and Striptease/All At Sea.