Uncle Vanya – Home Theatre, Manchester

I’ve recently written a post about Chekhov and Uncle Vanya after I saw it performed “in the round” at Theatr Clwyd, so I’m not going to go into the history of the play again. Instead, this is just a quick review of the show.  http://www.imblatheringnow.com/2017/10/uncle-vanya-by-anton-chekhov-theatr.html

I’ve not seen a “modern” interpretation of Chekhov before. I would argue that this was actually a timeless interpretation of Chekhov. It is hard to place this version in a specific decade because the themes that Chekhov wrote about 120 years ago are still relevant today, and will still be relevant in another 120 years. The costumes are also generic; simple casual clothing for the country workers, and an elegant red jumpsuit for the beautiful younger wife of the Professor, whose arrival torments all the men’s hearts. As  the generations before us have passed the buck, our latently idle species (however hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise) will continue to pass that buck to future generations to sort out. Chekhov was rather prophetic in his play writing, questioning the ways things were done and trying to focus on the possibilities of the future; the decline of the aristocracy, the anger and frustration of the destruction of the natural world, and the general mismanagement of the lands surrounding him.

In Andrew Upton’s version of Uncle Vanya, the action takes place within the oppressive crumbling walls of Serebrayakov’s estate. Damp, stained wallpaper peels from the walls, dead leaves litter the ground, and in the background a self-playing piano can be heard lamenting the destruction of both land and people as they are consumed by boredom and look to the bottom of a vodka bottle to solve their woes. Uncle Vanya is a play that we can all relate to, a play of wasted opportunities, unrequited love and economic injustices.     

At the heart of the tale is love. Sonya is secretly in love with the local doctor, Astrov. Vanya is obsessed with Yelena, the younger wife of the Professor, (who was previously married to Vanya’s dead sister). Astrov is also obsessed with Yelena, and blind to the feelings of Sonya; and whilst Yelena is aware of Sonya’s feelings, she too is attracted to Astrov but cannot betray her husband. It is a tangled web they weave, fuelled by love, boredom and vodka.

Katie West excels as the sweet, kind natured Sonya. Of all of the characters, she is the one you want to find happiness, the one who could have a bright future ahead of her, but as she delivers the final heart-rending lines of the play, you know her destiny is to continue being taken for granted until the day she dies. Nick Holder (Peaky Blinders, The Game) is equally as impressive as Uncle Vanya with an extraordinary depth of range for the character. At first he seems rather comical, a fool not to be taken seriously, but as his journey progresses you see the whimsy is a façade. His unwanted advances on the beautiful Yelena feel a little creepy, but later on there is a great feeling of sorrow towards him as he explodes with anger, releasing the hurt which has been tearing at his soul as he realises that he has wasted much of his life on people who don’t care about him. Jason Merrells (Waterloo Road) is charming as the visionary Astrov, although for all of his dreams about an ideal future, he can’t see what is staring him in the face! The supporting cast of Hara Yannas (The Musketeers, Broadchurch) as the pretty, bored, younger wife Yelena and David Fleeshman (Emmerdale) as the Professor Serebrayakov add another level of tension to the play as they arrive like a whirlwind bringing a trail of emotional and economic devastation with them.

Chekhov paints a clear picture of the destructive nature of depression, but Upton has captured the comedy that peppers Chekhov’s script with some highly entertaining moments and the strong cast has taken this on board. What’s the first thing that comes to a man’s mind when he has drunk too much vodka? Pulling his pants down and dancing around the stage with his trousers around his ankles of course! The moments leading up to the scene have the audience holding their breath, desperately stifling laughs as they watch Astov creep silently up on a sleeping Vanya. You can guess the rude awakening that is ahead of Vanya, and as music suddenly blares out of a stereo and he opens his eyes to Astrov’s bare bum the audience is left roaring with laughter.

Schoolboy pranks aside, this is certainly a different type of Vanya. It is a rollercoaster of emotions which show that even if life is not as you intended, life will and does go on, one way or another!

Uncle Vanya is currently playing at Home, Manchester until 25 November 2017.