A Vanya with a bit of vim
Uncle Vanya Hampstead, NW3 Henry Hitchings
UNCLE Vanya is a study of ennui, unfulfilled desires and the misery of rural isolation. Yet it’s also funny — full of Chekhov’s social satire and disdain for hypocrisy. Terry Johnson describes his new version of it, which he directs, as “modest”, and in some respects that’s true. With its samovars and silver birch trees, it’s visually conventional. But the humour is often unexpectedly earthy.
Vanya, 47, is stranded on a remote country estate and has wasted his life. His main mistake has been slaving away over the business affairs of his former brother-in-law, Professor Serebriakov, a pedant whose extensive studies have left no discernible mark on the world. Robin Soans’s Professor is as dry and brittle as an autumn leaf, an incongruous match for his young wife Yeliena, who’s played by Abbey Lee with a languor that makes her seem like a visitor from another galaxy.
It’s not unusual for productions of Uncle Vanya to be steeped in gloom — and for the title character to look weary and crumpled. But Alan Cox’s detailed performance emphasises different qualities. Although there are times when he’s wistful and owlish, he’s surprisingly sprightly, and when the drudgery of his existence threatens to snuff out this vitality, he retaliates almost impishly.
In fact, Johnson’s choice of words can make Vanya sound laddish. He refers to the Professor as “the luckiest sod I ever met” and explains that “to pay off the mortgage, I worked my arse off”. But he’s sometimes poetic, as when he celebrates the advantages of drunkenness — “an evening’s blindness can be a blessing”.
He’s not alone in feeling that way. Alec Newman’s Astrov, the doctor who attends the family, lubricates his “tedious, stupid, squalid life” with frequent shots of vodka. He needs to, because he is at the heart of Chekhov’s complex portrait of unrequited love: secretly adored by Vanya’s niece Sonia, he nurses a private passion for the Professor’s wife.
Yet despite sensitive performances, notably from Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia, there’s not enough sense of the sheer density of the play’s key relationships. The ending retains its insistent melancholy, but other poignant moments are diluted.
Langorous: Abbey Lee as the Professor’s young wife Yeliena