Thursday, 24 January 2013

Uncle Vanya

Vaudeville theatre, 23 January 2013

Ken Stott as Vanya.
Something is wrong with this production, something that is damaging to the drama, but which may also highlight a weakness with the text.

For what’s wrong isn’t something that would normally be a problem, in say, Shakespeare or Ibsen. We are given an excess of vitality.  

These actors seem simply too energetic, too vital, too confident, ever to fall into the ennui and rural dead-ends that the author describes. At various points, when a character was talking about how they had wasted their life, or how pointless it was, or how unattractive they were, I felt like shouting ‘so go and change your life, do something, you obviously can, you are not a hopeless case’. 

Perhaps then, the actors in Uncle Vanya should seem as if they are indeed hopeless cases. A lack of hope characterises most of the characters from the start, and if this isn’t convincingly portrayed, I think the drama doesn’t work. 

Though this is the deepest problem with this production, there are others, also subtle. The staging is traditional, taking place in a large wood-lined house (a clever touch, visualising the environmental desecration that Astrov campaigns against). This would be fine, except that it presents the challenge of how to have conversations in front of a group without anyone eavesdropping. I feel this must be the hardest challenge in directing Chekhov, and it is not overcome here by Lindsay Posner. 

A final difficulty is with Ken Stotts vigorous, near-psychotic performance of Vanya himself. In some ways this is one of the most extraordinary examples of stage presence I have seen. Stott genuinely seems at risk of an aneurism when Vanya is distressed. His fury after discovering Yelena and Astrov embracing is something marvellous to behold. But he seems almost to occupy a different time zone from the other characters, and certainly shouts as if he believes the other end of the stage were a thousand kilometres away. 

These are subtle, ambiguous problems. They could equally be described as successes. A vigorous, vital cast compels attention. A beautiful, socially aware production: the class differences are well caught, as they should be but rarely are in modern productions. And Stott’s emotional typhoon, purely as acting, deserves the applause he received.

But taken together, the faults mitigate the virtues, and I was left unmoved by the experience, as if this were weaker Chekhov, rather than one of his mature masterpieces, a despairing comedy in which no disruptive act works, so that everyone returns to their ordinary, dreary lives.

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