Uncle Vanya

Posted by Laurence Green

Staged in the 21st century Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre fails to deliver any depth to the characters, says Laurence Green.

Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre

The current trend to update classic plays and give them a modern spin continues apace with Anya Reiss’s re-invention of Chekhov’s 1898 work Uncle Vanya (St James Theatre) which has been relocated to the 21st century but sadly the result is a travesty of the original.

A respected professor returns to his farmland which has been managed without him for many years. He brings with him a beautiful young wife. Their arrival turns the lives of the residents upside down, forcing everyone to re-examine their choices. Old wounds are reopened, passions are awakened and thwarted ambitions bubble to the surface, threatening the lives of everyone involved.

Director Russell Bolam here fails to reach any depth to the characters beneath their small talk, while modernistic matter of fact dialogue lacks the poetry and insight that Chekhov brought to his great  work. Furthermore Janet Bird’s ugly, corrugated iron-set which supplies the backwater where the characters are trapped, their aspirations rotting, together with the setting of present day rural England seems completely out of place, not helped by the plastic garden furniture and the buckets which are necessary when the rain pours down. Indeed there is not a samovar in sight, reference to ipads and the internet abound and the characters’ Russian names appear odd to say the least.  

Admittedly there are moments which capture the humour of the original, such as the opening scene in which the suave Doctor Astrov searches for his own heartbeat while oblivious  to the housekeeper Marina who tries to press food upon him. But while we believe that Vanya and Astor are two intelligent men, squandering their own lives and appear both pathetic and funny there is no sense of tragedy.

John Hannah, wearing a pair of cut-off jeans, makes a resentful Vanya, a man without hope who hates his life, is recklessly in love but has lost his powers of seduction. Rebecca Night convinces as his trophy wife, while Jack Shepherd is a petulant second-rate professor and Joe Dixon a raffish Dr Astrov. It is only the stoic dignity of Amanda Hale as Vanya’s niece Sonya who generates something akin to the required loss and desolation.

But I’m afraid the air of despondency this production extended to this member of the audience as well.

Uncle Vanya

Runs at St James Theatre until Saturday 8 November

Box Office 0844 264 2140

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