Gate Theatre, London W11

Opened 2 September, 2009


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 enough 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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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