You might think that a new translation of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya' might be unnecessary given all the translations and adaptations which already exist. But Director Helena Kaut-Howson and actor Jon Strickland (who also plays Uncle Vanya here) decided to produce their own take on Chekhov's original, producing what they call a 'version' rather than a direct translation. The end result is a remarkable achievement which does indeed capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of the setting and is augmented by a fine, well-directed cast and excellent design.
The play is set on a country estate which is managed by Ivan Voinitsky (Vanya), assisted by his niece, Sonya. Their life is repetitively humdrum, and Vanya works for a pittance, sending the bulk of the estate's income to the owner, Professor Serebreyakov, who has fetched-up at the estate with his beautiful young wife, Yelena. Also in residence at the estate is the family nurse, Nyanya (excellently played with stoical maternalism by Tricia Kelly). A local doctor called Astrov, who normally trudges around the locality attending the sick, moves in for a month attracted, like Vanya, by Yelena's beauty.
The Arcola Theatre moved into its new premises earlier in the year, and they've managed to achieve a monumental amount of work since their arrival. Though there's still lots to do, the bare brickwork in the auditorium couldn't be more appropriate for this play, and one can't help feeling that designer Sophie Jump took full advantage of it to create a country home that has faded past its best, yet remembers better days. Some of the furniture has stuffing protruding from gashes, and there's an old door to the tree-lined garden with the kind of distressed look that only comes from years of loving neglect.
One striking advantage of having a play translated and adapted by the director and one of the leading actors, is that there's an incredibly strong sense of vision which is reflected in the acting as well as the design. Before the play even begins, there's a slight haze in the air which allows lighting designer, Alex Wardle, to create a long and evocative fade-up when the play commences, emphasising the slow, repetitive pace of life on the estate and the sultry, almost suffocating summer. The excellent cast includes Geoffrey Whitehead as the distinguished, pain-racked professor who says he's “aged so much he disgusts himself” and Marianne Oldham is captivating as his young wife Yelena who, one senses, might expire at any moment of sheer boredom. Jon Strickland is the wiry, gloomy Vanya, struggling to come to terms with ageing and the lot life has dealt him. Simon Gregor is the idealistic doctor who plants forests in an attempt to protect the vanishing environment, and Hara Yannas is the 'plain' Sonya who, when it's clear that her love for the doctor is never going to be reciprocated, knows that life must go on, however hard that might be.
Commenting on this play, Tolstoy apparently asked “Where's the drama?”, presumably because nothing much happens. In a way, that's true, nothing much does happen. But it's in the characterisation and the overall mood where the real satisfaction of the play lies. And we're never left with a feeling of disappointment, as many of the characters are. Indeed, as the play progresses and Vanya loses self-control there is real and intense drama, but it very quickly evaporates as the protagonists make amends, and the residents of the estate return to the repetitive routine of their existence. Nonetheless, this is a fine adaptation of Chekhov's work and a terrifically watchable production.