Uncle Vanya

Brian Friel, after Anton Chekhov
Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Conleth Hill as Vanya in Uncle Vanya Credit: Steffan Hill

This beautifully designed and directed production of Uncle Vanya offers a refreshingly different experience of Chekhov's play, for not only does Friel's Irish idiom infuse it with a lyricism and lightness, but in evacuating the stage of the clutter of period furniture, director Mick Gordon presents a bare space that emphasises the emptiness of the characters' lives whilst filling the theatre with Friel's masterful language. It's a combination that works brilliantly.

This stark minimalism of this production is strikingly apparent from the very opening as nine plain white chairs are perched at the front of an empty stage whilst Igor Vasiljev's stunning sylvan backdrops suggest the vast exterior world that lies beyond the two-foot thick walls of this remote country house. As each act unfolds, successive backdrops descend to depict the passage of time and the turn of the seasons, but crucially each inner proscenium frame also incrementally encloses the stage space to evoke the increasingly compressed and claustrophobic atmosphere of the play, which inexorably bursts into violence, like one of the region's summer storms that bring but brief relief from the oppressive heat.

First performed in pre-Bolshevik Russia of 1899, the fin-de-siècle world of Vanya is on the cusp of tumultuous change; but in spite of ominous references to revolutionary movements and 'merciless' deeds elsewhere in the country, the action in this play is never driven by external events; but by the internal emotions of the characters' inner lives.

And what prompts their pent-up 'fury and frustrations' to explode is the summer visit of Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Ian McIlhinney) and his beautiful second wife Elena (Orla Fitzgerald) to the family estate, which has hitherto been dutifully run by his daughter Sonya (Siobhán McSweeney) and brother-in-law, Vanya (Conleth Hill) in order to support the parasitic Serebryakov and his sybaritic wife's life in the city. The arrival of Elena and her oafish older husband, however, disrupts the efficient routine and rhythm of the estate as both Vanya and Dr Astrov (Declan Conlon) become hopelessly smitten by Elena; her sensuous presence in this desolate place driving both men to despair as they reflect on their empty, atrophied lives. Elena and Sonya too, live unfulfilled lives: the former is disillusioned with her marriage to an older man she once had revered as an eminent scholar whilst Sonya is crushed by her unrequited love for Astrov, whose own passionate vision of protecting the forests and wildlife from the depredations of 'progress' is drained by drink and the indifference of others.

In capturing the pathos of these enervated lives Gordon is well served by some fine performances. Conlon is outstanding as Astrov, his ecological dreaming, drunken revelry and existential defiance, ' The life we live is futile—face that', is all delivered with an easy mellifluous charm that utterly beguiles the besotted Sonya, who is delightfully played by McSweeney. Dowdy and dark haired, McSweeney is well cast opposite the flame-haired Fitzgerald, not only for their contrasting appearance but as the former's scutching Ulster vernacular counterpoints effectively the latter's refined southern brogue. Fitzgerald languidly embodies Elena's 'exquisite ennui' and her first entrance exudes sexual energy as Astrov and Vanya look on lustfully, whilst her final appearance precipitates in both of them, a palpable sense of loss and longing: her vivid crimson coat and hair will long linger in the memory of these men in the long bleak winter that lies ahead.

Hill deftly captures Vanya's quiet desperation as well as his quixotic absurdity, not only in his farcical attempt to shoot McIlhinney's pompous Serebryakov, but in his comical claims that had he only been free he might have been someone: a second Schopenhauer perhaps. It's an apposite reference though, for the great German philosopher derided optimism as 'an insult in light of the unbearable suffering of man' and there is little optimism on offer here.

And yet, even though Friel faithfully transposes Chekhov's fatalism and Hill is heartbreaking in the play's final scene as his face silently registers his inner turmoil in spite of Sonya's steely rejoinder that they should endure the empty lives that lie ahead of them, there is something dolorously redemptive, even as the autumnal leaves are stripped from Vasiljev's final frame, in the closing image of the characters resuming the routines and rhythms of their lives in the face of the futility of it all.

Though separated by a continent and a century Friel's Chekhovian sensibilities collapse time and space to reveal how 'Ireland is a little Russia' as George Moore once memorably distilled the peculiar affinities between these distant places and people. Indeed, Friel's version of Vanya and this production in particular, perhaps through its spareness, or through the power of its closing scene, conjures up another colossus in the crepuscular presence of Beckett and his most famous protagonists' weary determination, 'I can't go on, I can't go... I must go on'. This is a memorable and moving production.

Reviewer: Mark Phelan

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