Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

In the opening lines of Uncle Vanya, one of the main characters, Dr. Astrov, tells us that he finds life “boring and senseless and sordid.” You know immediately that you are in Anton Chekhov country, this time marvelously portrayed at the Vaudeville Theatre, London in a production directed by Lindsay Posner.

Dr. Astrov is not the only one who is bored and unhappy. We are on a country estate in Russia, surrounded by vanishing forests and some very smart people who do very little and are pretty much useless. When Chekhov sub-titled the play “Scenes from Country Life” he meant a portrait of Russia.

Vanya of the title (played superbly by Ken Stott) runs the estate which is owned by his brother-in-law Alexander, a retired professor. Vanya is portly, dispirited, bored and feeling old. He has nothing to look back on or forward to. He is uncle to Sonya only, the daughter of his dead sister who was married to the professor. (It is interesting that the play is named after him and emphasizes his connection to her.) Stott presents a tousled, confused Vanya, quite lost in his world in a performance that makes the 19th century Russian comprehensible in the 21st century. A major performance.

Samuel West plays the bored and miserable Dr. Astrov. He is still young but his ennui is just as great as Vanya’s. Like Vanya he falls in love with Yelena, the professor’s young and beautiful wife. He is rejected and settles for the torpor that is or he has made his life. A convincing performance by West.

Yelena is the catalyst in the play. She has been brought from the city to her husband’s estate and like the others she is bored with life. Astrov and Vanya pursue her with protestations of love but she rejects both of them. Anna Friel looked indeed young and beautiful but I thought she should be a bit more regal or standoffish. At times Friel tended to speak very quickly and did not provide enough contrast to her step-daughter Sonya.

Sonya is supposed to be plain, awkward and in love with Astrov. Laura Carmichael did not look plain at all and she seemed to be able to stand her own ground against Yelena in terms of looks and demeanor. she shows emotional depth in her expression of love for Astrov. In the end, she does move away spiritually from the others by imagining a brighter future. She provides the optimism that her uncle lacks.

Paul Freeman was very good as the blustering, crotchety and demanding retired professor. He is accused by Vanya of having produced nothing worthy in all his years of teaching but somehow he managed to marry a gorgeous woman mores than half his age.

I found the sets designed by Christopher Oram more workmanlike than inspired. The first act takes place in the estate garden and there should be a sense of expanse but here it looked like the back of a cottage.

The dining room and the other two rooms in the house that the rest of the play is set in looked appropriate.

Posner has done a generally outstanding job. Christopher Hampton’s translation humanizes the dialogue and the characters speak like people instead of stuffed shirts. Many productions and translations of Chekhov fall into the trap of making the characters speak English as if they are translating from Russian, not least of which is the use of those annoying patronymics.

Posner has directed a humane, approachable and highly enjoyable production of this classic.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in a translation by Christopher Hampton opened on October 25, 2012 and continues at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London, England.

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