If you follow London’s theatre scene, you will, by now, have heard about Peter Hall’s outburst at an earlier performance of this Chekhov play. Later reports have clarified that the knighted titan of post war British theatre, aged 81, cried out after he’d briefly fallen asleep and woken up disorientated.
So, did this Uncle Vanya have us crying “Stop, stop, stop… It is not good enough!” Did we feel we “could be at home watching television“?
Well, Lindsay Posner’s production is certainly soporific. Moodily lit by Paul Pyant, slowly paced, and framed by three achingly long, momentum-sapping scene changes, it doesn’t make for an energetic evening’s entertainment. This is traditional Chekhov, all samovars, sleigh bells, three-piece suits and sturdy boots.
And, as they’re constantly reminding us, these characters are bored. Bored by each other; bored by their surroundings; bored by their own limitations; bored by the futility of existence. The arrival of the beautiful, indolent Yelena briefly excites Doctor Astrov (Samuel West) and Ken Stott‘s earthy Vanya, but there’s very little action in the piece. At times, Posner’s direction leads to rather static scenes.
But the performances are strong. Stott’s Vanya is the right mix of world-weariness and mania, rendering his tussle with a pistol completely believable. West imbues each speech of the tedious, ecologically minded Doctor with layered meaning; every criticism of his selfish, unfeeling, short-sighted patients serving to damn him for all the same flaws. Anna Friel looks stunning as the beautiful, distracting Yelena but in another nuanced performance she catches the trophy wife’s lack of courage to do something about her very real frustrations. And an un-heckled (on the night we were there) Laura Downton Abbey Carmichael is sweetly sensitive as Sonya; with all the other characters acting like kids, her performance as the love-struck youngster belied her age (just 25). Her closing “Life must go on” speech was a little shrieked and stressed in delivery; whether that’s what was directed or how her performance has developed since “the incident”, we guess we’ll never know.
Last month, Stott asserted that you won’t “get” Chekhov until later in life: “You have to reach middle age before you can understand a play like this.” Perhaps this is one reason why this Londonista didn’t feel the full force of Chekhov’s “genius” during the production. Given that, once we turn 80, we might stop enjoying it for other reasons (à la Hall), it seems Mr C’s a niche playwright: perfect for the 50-79-year-old audience. We’ll let you know when we get there.
Uncle Vanya is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 The Strand, London, WC2R 0NH until 16 February. Tickets range from £25-£78.50. Visit unclevanyatheplay.com to find out more. We saw this show on a press ticket.