With the vast expanse of Russia brooding off stage, Lucy Bailey’s new production of Uncle Vanya sits the audience on all four sides of a drawing room set, enhancing the claustrophobic atmosphere in which noble (and less than noble) hopes and desires are inexorably crushed. Mike Poulton’s vibrant new translation of Chekhov’s dark, dark comedy sparkles with wit in the first half and before trapping the characters, stuck in their immutable allotted roles, as comedy cedes to tragedy.
Cynical Vanya (Iain Glen) plods through his life managing a country estate, enjoying the company of boozy but sexy Astrov (William Houston) who hates his duties doctoring to the peasantry, but loves the natural world all around him. Astrov is too busy hugging trees to hug Vanya’s plain, but clever and industrious niece, Sonya (Charlotte Emmerson) whose concealed passion for Astrov is matched only by his unconcealed indifference to her. With an ancient mother and old family retainers circling this platonic ménage-a-trois, their lives were set to play out to the ancient rhythm of Russian life - winters giving way to springs and then short summers, before the sting of frost returned.
Enter retired arts professor Serebryakov (David Yelland) and his new young trophy wife Yelena (Lucinda Millward), the beneficiaries of the estate’s profits after the death of the professor’s first wife, Vanya’s sister. Suddenly everything changes: meals are taken at all hours of the day; Vanya’s eyes are opened to the Professor’s charlatanism and his wife’s youthful beauty; and Astrov finds a target for his passions as he pursues Yelena. Suffice it to say that the phrase, “And they all lived happily ever after” doesn’t exist in Russian drama.
It’s a real thrill to see acting of this quality up close and personal. Iain Glen trashes about in his distress, as the lost opportunities eat away at his soul; William Houston hurtles towards his one last chance at seizing beauty he craves in the form of Lucinda Millward, convincingly empty-headed and louchely lazy. Charlotte Emmerson’s pain at her rejection, so swiftly buried in duty, rends the heart, as does David Shaw-Parker’s report of being called a sponger in town. In grave danger of stealing the show even from such consummate actors as these, is David Yelland, a spectacularly supercilious and sanctimonious villain who, if he had a moustache, would have twirled it throughout. I nearly punched him.
At £20 a seat (if you can get one) this show is on the pricey side for fringe theatre – but you get your money’s worth. And more.
Uncle Vanya is at The Print Room until 28 April 2012