Uncle Vanya, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April 2012Posted on 7 April 2012
For mockery and a self-deprecating sense of humour, Roger Allam’s Vanya is hard to beat.
From his first clumsy entrance onto stage, to his bumbled expostulation, “I could have been a Dostoevsky”, and his failure to shoot the brother-in-law he’s learned to detest, this was a Vanya fated to manage the estate as an also-ran. The brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov is a clever narcissist, attractive to the ladies, and as portrayed by Timothy West an endearingly frail old fool.
Both Vanya and Dr. Astrov, very engagingly portrayed here by Alexander Hanson, are enamoured of Serebryakov’s young (second) wife Yelena, played by Lara Pulver, but she lacked allure, and seemed overly neurotic. By contrast, Vanya’s niece, Sonya is supposed to be very plain, and Dervla Kirwan managed to make herself a rather dull fish, without being tiresome like Yelena. Maggie McCarthy and Anthony O’Donnell were a delight as the homely consciences of the house, providing earthy background against which Vanya could lose his head and his heart, and Astrov and Sonya just their hearts. But in this production by Jeremy Herrin, in a colloquial translation by Michael Frayn, the youthful anima of Yelena never gave them a reason to become so besotted.
I liked the sets by Peter McKintosh with the windows at the rear of the stage through which we see the outside world as in a mist, with rain dripping down when the storm comes exactly on cue with Vanya’s prediction. I liked the lighting by Chahine Yavroyan that gave that mistiness to the outer world, and I loved the two musicians setting the scene by playing wind and strings behind the windows.
This Chekhov play is a wonderful vehicle for taking an irreverent sweep at those nit-picking academics, in their fake-ivory hovels, who dissect the work of other more creative people. And Vanya’s pamphlet-reading mother, trying to understand the work of second-rate minds, is a harbinger of the later nonsense that was to engulf Russia, less than two decades after the author’s death. Yet the irritating narcissism of Vanya’s mother and the Professor were subdued in this production, and I wonder whether some of her lines were cut. The most irritating presence was the young wife Yelena, but in the end as she and her husband leave, Roger Allam’s Vanya is the focus of our attention in the slow dénouement. Will he blow his brains out, or accept his niece’s emotional support in doing the numbers and seeing that the point of life is life itself, as Dr. Chekhov well knew.
Performances continue until May 5 — for details click here.