Vanya

Sam Holcroft, inspired by Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya

Gate, Notting Hill

(2009)

Review by Philip Fisher

This 90 minute updated version of Chekhov will perhaps be remembered as Vanya in a box, as adventurous director Natalie Abrahami has used an industrial packing case as the seat of the action, behind a traditional proscenium.

It has to be said that designer Tom Scutt has created the most adaptable of structures, which revolves and, as it does so, changes its nature to fit the creative team's vision.

Writer Sam Holcroft has condensed the plotting, reducing the dramatis personae to four and concentrating on Chekhov's sexual conveyor belt as the main linking thread.

Around this, we eavesdrop on agonised soliloquies from each of the central characters, mainly about unrequited love but, in Astrov's case, envisioning a Utopian, anti-industrial society based on principles that even he cannot bear to practice.

The other main theme is overwhelming self pity, which not only consumes the quartet of would-be lovers but even the invisible head of the household, whose illness is the catalyst for many of the family's problems.

All four actors do their bit to take us into the minds of their characters. Robert Goodale's Vanya is a credible depressive who seems ripe for suicide or, if that isn't possible, murder. Sonya is played by Fiona Button with great feeling, as young and gauche but, unlike her uncle, never losing hope.

Her target is tall, bearded Astrov. In the hands of Simon Wilson, he is appropriately self-obsessed until, falling for beauty and betraying his pontifications about the perfect ant-colony society, the Doctor starts to worship his patient's wife, or at least her looks. Finally, Susie Trayling makes Yelena a tired woman seeking a few thrills while regretting a materialistic marriage that has stolen her youth and beauty.

This highly atmospheric production benefits from thoughtful lighting courtesy of Mark Howland and a musical accompaniment that starts sweetly and descends into chaos following the arc of the quartet's collective depression.

This short, sharp Vanya has much to offer to a modern audience, with its eye on Chekhov's relationships as viewed through 21st Century eyes. As such, while it does encompass much of the original work, the contemporary language and franker view of sexuality might not please every purist.

Even so, Vanya deserves to fill the Gate both with Chekhov freaks and anyone else who might enjoy a very well-staged drama looking at contemporary life and love through a century-old microscope.