When it comes to a production like Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre, hopes are naturally high. The brilliance of Anton Chekhov’s script, the vast experience of director Lindsay Posner, the combined talent of the starry cast, all combine to render the potential of this play stratospheric.
It very nearly fulfilled expectations, too. But not quite.
The set was beautifully, classically lavish, the décor of the house requiring lengthy changing between acts. This in no way detracted from the play; in fact it pleasantly underpinned the traditional, vintage feel of the production. The lighting was beautiful, rendering everyone rather nostalgically sepia at times. Add to that the sumptuous costumes, and the result was a visual feast.
The plot itself is fairly simple; Professor Serebryakov and his much younger second wife Yelena come to stay on their country estate, which is run by Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya and their old friend Vanya and his feminist mother. The professor is a constant invalid, which warrants frequent visits from Dr Astrov, with whom Sonya is in love. Unfortunately, Astrov is in love with Yelena, as is Vanya, who is starting to question his own lifelong loyalty to the professor as well as Yelena’s. As can be expected, chaos ensues, with much weeping and drinking and bemoaning of wasted lives and opportunities.
Ken Stott, of course, rules the roost as the eponymous Uncle Vanya. He roars around the stage, his marvellously expressive face veering from comedy to tragedy via every emotion in between in the space of a few seconds; a marvellously loveable rogue. His boundless energy breathes life into a play which just might, otherwise, have fallen a little flat. Not that the other performances were bad; Samuel West was despairingly comic as the drunken doctor, and June Watson, as the placid Nanny Marina, almost stole the show. Anna Friel was prettily languid as Yelena, her listless unhappiness almost painful to witness, and it was rather difficult to imagine her inspiring anyone to frenzies of passion. Laura Carmichael was a charming and likeable Sonya, although not nearly dowdy and plain enough to justify all the men preferring Yelena over her. Paul Freeman was a believably feeble and fretful Serebryakov, in mourning for his lost youth and taking it out on everyone else around him.
The problem was that the majority of the performances were just too subtle. The Vaudeville is a small theatre, but one would really have had to be in the front two rows to appreciate the delicate inflection of expression and gesture of most of the cast. Uncle Vanya is a very voluble play, the periods of action few and far between, and one really must be engrossed and enraptured by the speaker in order to remain focussed. Unfortunately one often had to strain to hear what the actors were saying, especially when they were facing each other rather than the audience, and this rather detracted from the appreciation of Chekhov’s witty and perceptive script, and many of the performer’s nuances were probably lost.
Stott and Freeman alone seemed capable of adequately conveying the Russian passion of the piece. A Chekhov play is not the place for subtlety or understatement, and at times the other actors seemed at risk of being upstaged by the sumptuous set. However those two boomed, and sobbed, and threw their arms up to heaven and generally revelled in the exaggerated emotions, bringing the drama beautifully to life for the audience.
Overall, Uncle Vanya was a pleasure. It was just frustrating to know that there was a wealth of talent on that stage which we could not properly appreciate. Hopefully these small issues will be resolved as the run continues, and if they are, this play has the potential to be an utter delight.
Review by Genni Trickett
2nd November 2012