Anton Chekhov. New version by Peter Gill
Sheffield Theatres and Theatr Clwyd
The current production of Uncle Vanya is staged in-the-round in the intimate setting of the Crucible’s small studio. This means that the audience is appropriately close to the action and can observe minutely the delicate nuances of the actors’ performances in this convincingly naturalistic interpretation of the play.
The play is rightly given an uncluttered period setting with carefully chosen items of furniture and props and stunning costumes designed by Lucy Osborne and made for the cast in the Theatr Clwyd workshop. In contrast, Peter Gill’s new version of the text has a modern feel to it and is particularly clear in revealing the subtle and complex relationships between the characters.
When retired professor Serebryakov and his beautiful young wife descend on the family home, a house on a large estate in the Russian countryside, they upset the equilibrium of daily living which for Vanya and his niece Sonya is premised on the hard work required to keep the estate going. A meaningless torpor sets in which leads to self-examination and a sense of lives wasted.
The cast is divided between those engaged in meaningful work and those preoccupied by narrow and selfish concerns. Grandmother Mariya can only think about her pamphlets; Serebryakov lives on past academic triumphs, if such they were, and has become a self-centred, demanding hypochondriac; while the beautiful but manipulative Elena overcomes her boredom by breaking hearts around her.
An additional polarity is between the intellectual and sophisticated life linked to the city and a life of demanding but rewarding effort linked to the country. Sonya, Vanya, the peasant nurse Marina and Telyegin, an impoverished landowner who lives with the family, fall into the latter category, and though exhausted by long hours find consolation and meaning in work.
The visiting doctor, Astrov, is a recognisably contemporary figure. While he has no enthusiasm for his medical practice and is exhausted and diminished by it, he is passionate about the conservation of the forests that surround the estates and has charted the decline both of the woodland and the animals that once lived in it.
In the first half of the play, this complex network of values and relationships is patiently set out, leading in the second half to a crunch scene in which Serebryakov announces that he intends to sell the estate so that he can buy a house in warmer climes. Selfish as always, he gives no consideration to the effect this will have on the rest of the family and is surprised and alarmed by the violent response this unleashes.
The play is sensitively directed by Tamara Harvey and the cast rises to the challenge of Chekhov’s naturalism with thoughtful, detailed, convincing performances which are full of integrity.
Oliver Dimsdale as Astrov and Rosie Sheehy as Masha are particularly impressive. Shanaya Rafaat is a beautiful Elena, swishing around in her elegant gown and drawing the eyes of the hapless men and Jamie Ballard’s Vanya gives a splendid outburst of passion after the family consultation scene. Martin Turner’s cold, selfish, dislikeable Serebryakov is in stark contrast to Veronica Roberts’s stoical, sensible, homely nurse Marina.
My one slight caveat about the production was the tendency for direct address and eye contact with the audience during long monologues. These have always struck me as internal musings consistent with the conventions of naturalistic theatre, rather than Brechtian-style direct address which is deliberately challenging.
A beautifully performed and presented Uncle Vanya which is really worth seeing.