Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Opened 10 September, 2001

Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre has kicked off its 25th anniversary season, complete with costume and poster exhibitions around the vast foyer amid which sits the building-within-a-building of the theatre itself. The first play, though, is a curious, piecemeal interpretation of Uncle Vanya.

As in Chekhov's writing, each of the main characters makes their own comment upon a wasted, inconsequential life with the prospect of only more waste to come and the impossibility of actual joy. Each has found his or her own approach to the situation struggle, concealment, accommodation, despair. The thing is that in Greg Hersov's production, there are moments when each also seems to be in his or her own play.

Robert Glenister's Astrov is a fine piece of work: a man who knows that he is no longer dashing as in his youth, and has squandered what others continue to call his "talent" for living both vibrantly and intelligently; he now partly takes refuge from this knowledge, partly fuels a pale facsimile of his once natural exuberance in drink. John Bennett's desiccated Serebryakov is serene in his opinion of himself, be it the grandeur of his (in reality pinched, petty) intellectual life as a retired professor or prima-donna self-pity at his aches and pains not the rheumatism he claims, but plain gout.

At the centre of the proceedings, though, is Tom Courtenay's decidedly odd Vanya. He begins by seeming a little on the pensive, rambling side, then develops a strain of misjudged, over-heavy playfulness, and explodes in his Act Three outburst against his brother-in-law Serebryakov as if all his years looking after the estate have simply turned his mind, in an opulent form of cabin fever. His limbs flail, his very voice flails as words are first wrested then come tumbling out from him in bizarre, distracted cadences. This Vanya seems genuinely to believe himself to be insane. It's an interesting and theoretically defensible character choice, but in practice it puts a most un-Chekhovian maelstrom at the core of the production.

I could not identify what it was about Helen Schlesinger's performance as Yelena that wasn't quite ringing true, until the gentleman beside me put his finger on it: he whispered to his wife, "She thinks she's Jennifer Saunders." This is spot on: the self-dramatisation of Schlesinger's Yelena is more natural than Courtenay, but it's still that notch or two bigger than reality, in the way that so many of Saunders' characters are; this is not just Yelena queening to herself, it's Schlesinger discreetly but still palpably queening to the audience.

Chekhov's magnificent insights still shine through, but Hersov's production is far from a clear glass vessel for them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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