One hundred years on, are we – as prophesied in the play – happier than Chekhov’s characters in ‘Uncle Vanya’? On the one hand, who isn’t? This lot make the House of Atreus look like the Brady Bunch. But if Chekhov lays on the gloom a bit thick, it’s gloom we can all identify with. And director/translator Helena Kaut-Howson plumbs it to penetrating effect here.
Her production doesn’t instantly represent a radical departure from what she calls the ‘ossilising reverence’ of English Chekhov. Linen suits? Check. The lounging bourgeoisie? Check. It’s in the balance whether all this rural Russian ennui will itself become ennuyeux, as characters wallow in their futility.
But the excellent ensemble and an easy translation finally make the desolation sing. The characters’ self-indulgence may grate elsewhere, but it’s the opposite quality – agonised self-denial – that proves devastating when Simon Gregor’s Astrov and Marianne Oldham’s Yelena tear themselves apart on the threshold of frightening, thrilling new love. Jon Strickland’s Vanya is comically enfeebled, his descent towards self-awareness as much pratfall as tragic downfall.
The production peels these people open and peers at their stifled souls.