It seems a trifle unreasonable to criticise Sam Holcroft’s play for
lacking the depth and nuance of Chekhov; after all, which play doesn’t?
And this is very much an “inspired by” work, to be judged on its own
terms, rather than “an adaptation of” to be measured against the
original. Holcroft takes the central quartet of Uncle Vanya
– Vanya himself, his
niece Sonya, his long-time unrequited beloved Yelena and Astrov, the
doctor treating Yelena’s decrepit husband – retains the skeleton of
character, relationships and events, and proceeds to tell the same
story in her own way and to her own ends. The evening proceeds almost
entirely through duologues and soliloquies until the final phase, which
moves more quickly than Chekhov, even more quickly than the rest of
this 85-minute version.
In Holcroft’s telling, Astrov’s philosophical ideals centre not on
reforestation (surprisingly, given the increasing greening of our
culture) but on a return to “tribal living”. Here, the gap between
these ideals and his more libidinous reality is clear and culpable, and
the women’s realisation that much bitterer. More bitter, too, is
Vanya’s sense of the emptiness and pointlessness of his own life.
Robert Goodale excellently combines lacerating self-pity with, as it
should be, almost
recognition of the absurdity of his position. His bilious, throwaway
one-liners are bleak delights. He is equalled and even exceeded by
Fiona Button as Sonya, whose devotion to Astrov is perfectly pitched to
be transparent and heartbreaking to us but unnoticed by Simon Wilson’s
self-absorbed, theorising medic. Yelena’s soliloquy about men’s
expectations and conduct is one point where the re-pointing of the
story becomes a little too thumping, but Susie Trayling makes deft work
of its delivery.
Natalie Abrahami directs with a fine chamber-production intensity.
Designer Tom Scutt may be over-interpreting when he claims that “All
[the characters] are troubled labourers in some way”, but his slowly
revolving shed-cum-packing-case set effectively concentrates their
interaction within a space even more confined than the Gate’s stage
normally is. Panels and hatches open and close, and the first and last
moments of the evening find Vanya and especially Sonya taking solace in
Black & Deckers rather than the estate’s account books. This is a
scrupulous production of a considered play which does not attempt to
supersede Chekhov, but rather succeeds in supplementing it.
Written for the Financial