Uncle Vanya marks playwright Anya Reiss’s latest stab at bringing Chekhov into the twenty-first century. Her previous attempts at revamping The Seagull and Three Sisters relocated the action to the Isle of Man and a Middle-Eastern ex-pat colony, respectively. It was out with the old and in with the new, as Reiss discarded the drawing rooms and samovars of provincial Russia in favor of the iPads and pop music of the modern day. While there is little particularly new or revelatory about the idea of ‘updating’ Chekhov, it’s worth considering Reiss’s approach alongside the wealth of other reinterpretations. The works of Chekhov – like those of Shakespeare – have become a barometer against which directors, writers and designers strive to test their aesthetic prowess while unearthing fresh and relevant meanings for plays that – on the page, at least – can appear somewhat mothballed.
Plot-wise, we know the drill: Serebryakov (Jack Shepherd), an elderly academic, returns with his much (much) younger wife, Yelena (Rebecca Night) to the country-estate that he’s left to the care of his daughter, Sonya (Amanda Hale) and son-in-law, Vanya (John Hannah). Both have worked tirelessly to maintain the farm in order to fund Serebryakov’s life in the city, but the crusty old goat’s decision to sell up and move away prompts recriminations aplenty from the irascible Vanya.
Uncle Vanya, like the majority of Chekhov’s major plays, deals with estrangement: estrangement of purpose and estrangement of geography. His characters are sad and listless beings, struggling to make sense of what they’ve lost while smiling through the tears as they do so. In this latest version of the play, Reiss locates the action in a farmstead somewhere in the deep, rural North – perhaps Yorkshire or Northumberland – with designer Janet Bird’s corrugated-steel backdrop creating the immediate impression of a harsh, industrialized, agrarian lifestyle. Flowers protrude from concrete slabs as if attempting to escape, and despite the pastoral setting it’s visually a far cry from the idealized vision of bucolic splendor championed by the play’s very own Doctor Astrov (Joe Dixon).
I say ‘version’, because Reiss has been careful to distinguish her approach from that of an ‘adaptation’, which, presumably, is more likely to take liberties and mess about with the text. In the programme notes, she states: “This is a version not an adaptation. This is very much Chekhov’s play, just working within a modern context”. But, you see, there’s the rub: while there is plenty of ‘modern’ in Reiss’s Uncle Vanya – with laptops, mobile phones and references to ‘the internet’ pinging out – there is a noticeable absence of ‘context’. In choosing to give Uncle Vanya a fresh coat of paint – a laptop here, an epithet there – while simultaneously remaining precious about the rest of its elements, Reiss’s ‘re-versioning’ (sic) ends up falling disappointingly short of the mark. Neither faithful enough to its period to satisfy die-in-the-wool purists, nor sufficiently radical in its approach to shed any new light, the result, unfortunately, is Chekhov-by-numbers with cosmetically enhanced features.
But then again, perhaps there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this choice of approach. If you happen to be new to Chekhov or the play, then Reiss and director Russell Bolam’s staging offers a pretty decent and clear-eyed rendition in which to get acquainted with it. Nevertheless, when considered alongside the radical dramaturgical intervention of Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters (Young Vic), or the meticulous craftsmanship of Katie Mitchell’s The Cherry Orchard (same), or the starkly affecting minimalism of Headlong’s The Seagull (Nuffield/Derby Theatre), it becomes difficult to view Bolam and Reiss’s Uncle Vanya as anything other than a rather conventional effort with added mod cons. Viewed through a modern day prism, Uncle Vanya presents a vision of a society seething with class-based enmity, in which the old and wealthy sponge off the young in order to prop up their cosmopolitan lifestyle. Unfortunately, any opportunity for exploring these parallels gets glossed over in a production that seems more preoccupied with surface details.
Nevertheless, there are redeeming qualities in the form of some pretty stonking performances, particularly from Joe Dixon as the ‘eccentric’ Doctor Astrov, who succeeds marvelously in capturing the total sum of the character’s contradictions; vivacious one minute and aloof the next, Dixon flits effortlessly between moments of philosophical seriousness and flamboyant disregard. What’s more, I wager that you won’t see better ‘drunk’ stage acting than Dixon’s portrayal of the sloshed Astrov this year. Meanwhile, John Hannah is waspish and insouciant as the irascible Vanya, while Amanda Hale offers a lesson in slow-burn emotional catharsis as the tragic Sonya.
Still, dressing up the old in new garments isn’t the same as unearthing modern resonances from within. There’s no denying Reiss’s obvious talent – her ability to nail the patter of our modern speech is second to none, and the language here is fresh and punchy – but there is little revelatory to be found in this version of Uncle Vanya. This is same old Vanya in brand new clothes.