Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Opened 25 January, 2008

When he held a press performance in the then half-finished Rose Theatre, Peter Hall voiced the hope that it would be fully in operation within a year. That was in December 2004. Last week saw its first proper opening night. Hall has already announced that he will not be running the Rose in full bloom; his successor is to be Stephen Unwin, the outgoing supremo of English Touring Theatre, for which company Hall in turn has directed this production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
The theatre itself fulfils every promise Hall made when showing us its shell three years ago. A modern indoor version of the design of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, it has aspects in common with Shakespeare’s Globe: a stage thrust into banks of seating surrounding it on three levels, with a pit for “groundlings”… though here, unlike at Bankside, the groundlings sit (£7 each, b.y.o. cushion). Moreover, the stage is a wide, shallow lozenge shape, and the space feels far more intimate than its size would suggest: not unlike the Young Vic, but with more than twice that house’s capacity at 900-odd seats. When Hall has his actors here deliver soliloquies standing downstage centre, straight out to the audience, the impression is not that they are orating but simply sharing their thoughts with us.
This is underpinned by Stephen Mulrine’s translation, which has an easy, unforced gait, neither stolid nor self-consciously slangy: when Vanya describes the self-regarding Serebryakov as a “scholarly kipper”, Mulrine’s phrasing strikes exactly the right note. The Russian soul does not seep through every pore, in either the translation or Hall’s production, although the design locates it firmly enough; all aspects, including the Rose space itself, combine so that we feel we are not so much being offered a window on to these people’s thoughts and feelings as witnessing them from within the room. The show canters along at less than an hour each half, the kind of pace Chekov seems to have had in mind but which he is scarcely ever granted in performance.
Nicholas le Prevost brings to Vanya an authentically middle-aged irritation. After 25 years of running the country estate without a word of thanks, and on being told rather that it is to be sold from under him, his attempted shooting of his Serebryakov is not an operatic gesture; when Vanya snaps it is on a paltry, fumbled scale, which le Prevost handles expertly. Similarly, Michelle Dockery as Serebryakov’s young second wife Yelena is clearly uninterested in any of the kinds of life offered to her, but not languidly disdainful – after all, she has to be the kind of woman to draw the attentions of both Vanya and the family friend Dr Astrov. The infatuation of Loo Brealey’s Sonya for Astrov is fervent without being girlishly wide-eyed.
In an evening of excellent characterisations, Neil Pearson’s Astrov is foremost. Pearson is a master of the kind of mild, rumpled deprecation (of both himself and everyone else) which works beautifully in the role… and certainly doesn’t deserve the excessive directorial decision to have his name pronounced “Arse-trov” throughout. I am also amazed that when last I saw him in Pinter’s Betrayal, I failed to notice how adept he is with pauses: never drawing them out, but letting them speak succinctly for themselves.
The opening night’s star-studded audience ran from film-maker Mike Leigh to Arts Council of England master butcher Peter Hewitt. ACE give not a penny to the Rose, which is funded by the local council and Kingston University. It deserves to repay their commitment and secure for itself a firm place on greater London’s theatre map.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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