Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov @ Theatr Clwyd

I found myself watching three Chekhov "plays in a day" last year at The National Theatre in London. When I went to speak to some of the actors afterwards, they proclaimed I was mad watching all three productions one after the other. An eight-hour Chekhov-athon it seems is supposed to be rather dark and heavy going, and only a madwoman would subject herself to it!

I found David Hare’s epic productions of Platanov, Ivanov and The Seagull whet my appetite for Chekhov. It was an enjoyable day charting the evolution of Chekhov’s writing, so when I found out that another one of his major works, Uncle Vanya, was being performed closer to home I was thrilled!

Anton Chekhov was the third of six children. He was born in January 1860 in Taganrog, southern Russia. His father was a grocer, very religious, who tried to instil his religious beliefs into his children with such fervour that Chekhov in later life complained of never having a childhood. As he grew up, his elder brothers became alcoholics and his father became bankrupt. It was left to Chekhov to continue his studies (medicine in Moscow) and look after his family by his short story writing in Moscow periodicals. He wrote about 600 short stories in all, but it is his success as a playwright that we now know him.  His first play, Platonov was written but unperformed; Ivanhov which followed gave him some success in both St Petersburg and Moscow, yet his next play The Wood Demon was a complete failure. This play however, laid the foundations to what would become the more successful Uncle Vanya.

In 1898, Chekhov allowed a production of The Seagull to be re-performed by the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre. It saw Chekhov become a master of the theatre in Russia. The company went on to perform his other three plays on which his reputation as a great dramatist rests, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and of course, Uncle Vanya.

Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts

Chekhov took great pains to ensure
that his audience could understand what emotional response he wanted from his works by categorising them. Ivanhov and Three Sisters were considered dramatic; The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were comedies (not the laugh a minute raucous comedies we’d expect, but more akin to Dante’s sense of "laughter being the best medicine to loss or pain and suffering", and perhaps this is why many of Chekhov’s plays have been directed as dark, heavy tragedies) Uncle Vanya however was catagorised as “scenes from country life.”   

You may therefore imagine that Uncle Vanya is played in a gloriously idyllic setting, where birds are singing, there is quiet contemplation as a stream gurgles past; that sorrows and cares are whisked away by a light breeze across a field, but you’d be wrong. Uncle Vanya is none of these things! Why Chekhov chose this subtext is possibly down to his playfulness with his audience. He wanted his audience to think about what they were seeing. His writing showed that real life isn’t melodramatic; it’s just a series of many inconsistencies. One day things are going ok, the next…you just don’t know. Commonplace activities around a dining table, or conversations over a drink reveal far more about a person than the grandest soliloquy can ever do.

“people have dinner, that’s all they do, they have dinner; yet during this time their happiness is established or their lives fall apart.” Chekhov

It is his subtleties to detail that make his works so captivating. Today theatre goers expect to witness absurdist theatre when watching a Harold Pinter production, but arguably, Chekhov was the father of the absurdist theatre. He grasped the ordinary and turned it into pure drama, but his dramas cannot be described as realistic. He doesn’t write a play that will solve your problems, he just hints at things through a clever use of dialogue. Even the most tragic situation can then have a sense of the “laugh out loud” in the farcicality of the circumstances that someone finds them self in; so never feel ashamed to laugh when that feeling takes over you in a Chekhovian drama!

In many of Chekhov’s plays the major characters are looking for salvation, either through love or work. Neither are usually the answer, and in Uncle Vanya the same is true. Peter Gill’s 2017 version for Theatr Clwyd takes on board the messages from Chekhov’s original play, and we are transported back to 1890’s Russia. For Peter, this was a play which couldn’t be updated to a modern setting. Vanya and his niece Sonya live in the middle of nowhere…miles from the nearest village, and a trip to the city would almost certainly be unthinkable! They are trapped in one life, yet yearning for another, freer life, untied from the shackles that bind them in the only life they know.

The production has been done “in the round” meaning there is less emphasis on scenery and a greater feeling of intimacy with the cast. You feel as though you are sitting in the garden or the parlour with the family, watching through a 360°window into their souls.

Jamie Ballard (Ripper Street, The Hollow Crown II) shines in the titular role. He is quick witted with a chirpy character that belies his despair and the injustice he feels he has been subjected to. He provides the majority of the humour throughout the piece. Almost self-deprecating at times, you can’t help but feel empathetic towards Vanya and the situation he finds himself him. In most Chekhov dramas, where there is a gun, there is a death. Here, you know full well that Vanya would be incapable of pulling a murder off!

Rosie Sheehy (DCI Banks) is also deserving of a mention. Her portrayal of Sonya as an intelligent, hard working woman who deserves so much more from life is utterly believable. There are times throughout the play where you are desperate for her to find her Disney happy ending, but this is Chekhov, and you know it can’t be. She manages to keep a tight rein on her emotions, her desires for Astrov kept hidden, until with almost childlike enthusiasm, she explodes and allows her secret to be told to her step-mother Elena. The scenes she shares with Oliver Dimsdale (Grantchester, Utopia) show a man who is genuinely fond of her, but has absolutely no realisation of her deeper feelings towards him.

“..when one has no real life, one lives by mirages. It's still better than nothing.”

This is an accomplished production, it has been well staged, and the costumes are of the period, but there are times when it lacks a punch, particularly in the first half. It is hard to be too critical though, the first two acts are written as dialogue for people sitting/standing around, so it is hard to create something overly dynamic. This comes in the second half of the play when Chekhov’s themes of a wasted life come to fruition. People’s aspirations come crashing down as they realise the futility of their lives, that sudden moment of disappointed reality.

Vanya and Sonia’s lives are turned upside down when Serebryakov, a retired professor suffering ill health (Martin Turner, Waking the Dead, Foyles War) arrives at the estate with his young, beautiful wife, Elena. The estate belonged to his dead wife, and her brother Vanya has run the estate for the past twenty years. These complicated relationships lack any real emotional bonds and this is shown particularly when an argument ensues of the legal status of the family estate…who is entitled to it…who can sell it and reap the rewards…and what about those who have sweat blood and tears to keep it going?

As an audience we can empathise with Vanya and Sonya, but it is harder to finds attachments to the other major characters. Astrov begins an impassioned speech about deforestation, but this is quickly cut short by the arrival of vodka, and his revelation that he is far better surgeon whilst “under the influence.” Whilst he tries to make us believe that he has such fine feelings, he is easily swayed to other subjects and completely sterile about human relationships, making a play for Elena, but ignoring the obvious passions of Sonya. And what about Elena and Serebryakov? She is blindly loyal to her husband who is nothing short of being an egocentric bully, but even with these faults, the dawning realisation that he has worked so hard as an academic, only for scorn to be poured on his life’s achievements, does elicit a modicum of pity.

This co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Sheffield Theatres allows the audience to “people watch” at the highest level. These strange characters from 1860 allow us to sit back, with a dawning realisition of how easy it is for life to go off course. We often find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do, for friends or family who don’t really seem to care about us. It begs the question, if we constantly put ourselves out for others, if we always put ourselves second, is it really worth it?  

The production has finished at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, but it starts a new run at the Crucible Lyceum Studio, Sheffield, Wednesday 18th October 2017 – Saturday 4th November

Click here for ticket information:


After I wrote this, I spoke to my friend and asked should I have put our pub story in? She said yes...so here goes!

We had gone walking up Moel Famau the day of the play, but by the time we had got to the top and back to the car, it was getting a bit late. We went to the pub near the theatre but it was full, so we nipped somewhere else to grab something quick to eat so that we didn't end up passing out in the theatre. (Good job when we realised we were sat on the stage!)

Anyway, I promised my mate we could have an early tea at the pub the next day before she went home, because the food there is really lovely. So I booked a table (see learnt from the night before!) and we went out to the RSPB in Conwy for the day. It was very blustery! We headed, looking rather bedraggled, to the pub, and as we sat there waiting for our meals a man passed by our table. "Nikki" I said, "wasn't that Jamie...you know Uncle Vanya from last night?" She hadn't seen, and we didn't like to stare so we carried on chatting.

A wee bit later, I saw him heading towards the bar again, but this time via our table. I caught his eye and smiled and he came over and said "weren't you two watching the play last night?" "Yes" we chorused, in a somewhat bemused fashion. We had a quick chat and passed on our thanks to Jamie and the rest of the cast and crew, and said to let it be known that we'd thoroughly enjoyed the play. We then sat there, slightly amused. "You know," I said, "I've heard of fans going up to an actor in a pub and asking for a pic or whatever, but I've never heard of an actor approaching someone to say they'd seen them in the audience before!" It was such a lovely thing to happen...but I can't help wonder...how on earth had the pair of us been so memorable?!